Liberal Education

Simple and Intelligible Language

It is impossible to write anything bad in completely simple and intelligible language.

Well, is it? Does Tolstoy so daunt me that I cannot think my way around his statement? I do love and idolize him, but I don't always agree with him on God and sex, for example. Everyone who reads Tolstoy finds something to mock, and that's partly because he has the confidence to speak about anything that comes into his orbit—and because we understand everything he says. So maybe he's not the greatest philosopher or Christian thinker or moralizer (I trust Isaiah Berlin's critical assessments of Tolstoy's philosophizing, for instance), but who among us has the audacity to step between Tolstoy and any of his pronouncements on writing? I don't! Nonetheless, that statement asks to be responded to, assessed, judged; and so I try, I really try, to think of exceptions. Anything bad? Is it possible to say something hateful "in completely simple and intelligible language"? Of course. Threats are often made in such language. So what does Tolstoy mean by "bad"? Or should we move away from any possible utterance and onto an essay or story? If we do, then I think we may have something to discuss.

I fear that some of my colleagues in the teaching business would dispute Tolstoy's point. For one thing, academic writing is so rarely "completely simple and intelligible." In a graduate seminar, I remember a student making some mild squawk of objection on this point of intelligibility about some faddish critic of the day. This student wondered whether the critic was using convoluted writing to disguise convoluted thinking. My fellow graduate students sneered at her; our patient professor shook his head and pitied her. Poor thing, didn't she know that the complexities of theory can't be expressed in anything but their own form?

Even though Tolstoy isn't saying that anything good has to be "in completely simple and intelligible language," I usually feel that's the case. With this in mind, I am relieved by Karl Popper's claim about language and the Enlighten­ment. "What externally distinguishes the Enlightenment approach and the approach of self-declared prophets?" he asks. "It is language. The Enlighten­ment thinker speaks as simply as possible. He wants to be understood" (1999, 85). Popper hated prophets, and he was, or wanted to be, an Enlightenment thinker. Any objection to intelligibility, any defense of a lack of intelligibility as a sign of depth or sophistication, seems suspect to me. As Popper suggests, prophets know the truth. They must hammer it, or something like it, into our skulls, and we must be forbearing and accept from them what we cannot understand. We must have faith that the nail of "truth" will eventually oxidize and be absorbed into our bloodstream. We must trust the "truth" of their unintelligible words.

The language of lying

I love my developmental writing students and their lack of pretense, their lack of awareness that one could—or would want to—use written language to disguise thoughts or feelings. Their backgrounds are as diverse as New York City and its immigrant population. There in my classes of twenty-four sit Lu from South China and Lou from South Brooklyn. They are foreign to each other but snagged by an identical categorizing exam. When they were admitted to the college, a month or six months or two years ago, they wrote for an hour in a big room with dozens of other dazed students, and they wrote poorly in almost all the ways one can write poorly. Some of the non-native English speakers admit that when they read the assessment exam topic, rather than feign an interest in a deliberately uninteresting scenario, they shrugged and wrote shruggishly. When I'm not worrying about their futures, I admire that! Why pretend to have feelings one doesn't have?

On the other hand, at the end of the term, we spend some time talking about pretending and how, for instance, in one of the books we read, Langston Hughes created the amazing Jesse B. Semple to say things that had an energy and language Hughes couldn't generate from his own point of view. (Not pretense but creation.) We try to see the joy in pretending to be somebody who cares! I encourage them on their next trip through the assessment exam to create a fictional self who cares enough about a socioeconomic issue to write a letter to a city council member that advocates for a recreation center over an expanded library—or vice versa. It doesn't matter which side they take, as long as the imaginary letter writers really care and give wings to their words.

Many of the developmental students sitting before me struggle with writing as an activity—moving a pen across paper and seeing their own thoughts and feelings tumbling out and being revealed in this clumsy, nonelectronic medium. Such revelations sometimes stop them in their tracks. But usually, on their own, or by my nosy nudging, they bravely proceed, baring something they hadn't thought was within them, until now, or available for writerly discussion, analysis, and contemplation.

What a joy it is, albeit a sometimes troubling one to them and to me, when they write so faithfully what they think. So in spite of their faults of grammar or their lack of command of idiom, they use the English language as well as they can. And it seems they use it always in a positive direction: forward, not sideways. My students from China and South India are particularly good about this. For them, there is nothing that is not to be said, and everything said is meant. Some of my honors and literature students have perfect English and write in sophisticated, conventionally academic ways, which usually means they know how to hide and cover what they tell me. There are things to be thought, and there are things to be written—good manners, the bane of art! My Albanian and Haitian students, on the other hand, are God's gift to developmental-writing literature. No matter their struggles with the language, they take writing deadly seriously and value it as testimony. This reminds me of another passage in Tolstoy's letters, where he discusses lying:

However trite it is to say so, there is only one negative quality needed for everything in life, particularly in art—not to lie.

In life, lying is nasty, but it doesn't destroy life, it smears it over with its nastiness, but the truth of life is still there underneath, because somebody is always wanting something, something is always giving pain or pleasure; but in art, lying destroys the whole chain which links phenomena, and everything crumbles to dust. (Tolstoy 1978, 303)

Some of my students are, to their own surprise, brilliant storytellers. They simply trust the tale, not the teller. If they tell a ghost story, they don't pretend, for instance, to believe in ghosts or zombies or duppies; they actually do! And so when they write faithfully, I see what they see. They are not trying to impress me with their superiority to their subject. Defeated (they think) by their language, they go for the best truth they can. Even when (to their and my distress) their language is, as far as the grammar goes, poor, it's always intelligible. They don't lie. They spin tales, but they are scrupulous about the truth. Yet when I attend meetings with my colleagues, we tend to discuss our students' pitiful skills. When I am true to my students and resist this teacherly impulse to bemoan their deficiencies, I keep this in mind: "It is impossible to write anything bad in completely simple and intelligible language."

Still, it's hard not to give in too far to the socializing aspect of higher education. I don't like it when, a semester or two later, I discover that a once plainspoken student's language has become guarded, inflated by rhetoric but sinking with deadweight jargon. I wonder, who's teaching Elinor to fake it? Who told her it wasn't good to write exactly what she thinks? Dear Elinor, who broke my heart with her extremely personal anecdotal responses to our readings! This semester, more than a year after we got to know each other in developmental English, she proudly shows me a bad paper for which she was rewarded with an A. As I glance over the essay, typical and rigorously thoughtless, I congratulate her (a lie!) and feel disgusted. Where did this "There is a tendency in American culture to ascribe meaning to . . ." and this "The entities by which an individual utilizes the manifested . . ." come from? Where? Yes, from books and other similarly rewarded essays. I sigh and grumble to myself, how could Professor X not have valued Elinor's unique and weird and truthful voice? Worse, I wonder how Elinor could have given it up.

Why should the erosion of forthrightness be inevitable with education? Is this why I love artists and prefer them to myself and other academics—because they, with talent and experience, continue struggling toward truths within their chosen medium? Such brave struggles are possible for us academics, too, if we encourage our students and discipline ourselves to write in simple and intelligible language.


Popper, K. 1999. All life is problem solving. New York: Routledge.

Tolstoy, L. 1978. Tolstoy's letters, vol. 1. London: Athlone Press.

Bob Blaisdell is professor of English at City University of New York Kingsborough Community College.

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