English is an accomodating language. Some dictionaries have recorded considerably more than half a million English words. Some authorities believe that there will be more than a million English words when the recently developed technical terms are included. However, one study indicates that most of us accomplish most of our communication with fewer than a thousand words. English allows us to develop new words to express new thoughts. Although English facilitates communication of complex or new thoughts, effective communication is a challenge. Consider the following sentence.

Tom hit a home run.

That sentence is simple and understandable. It is simple and understandable if you are a native English speaker who is acquainted with the game of baseball. Tom hit what? Tom swung a club (baseball bat) that struck a ball that landed outside the outfield boundaries of the baseball playing area. A full explanation of a home run would require several sentences. We understand the simple English sentence because of our background knowledge. Consider the following sentences.

E = MC² appears to be a simple equation, but appearances can be deceiving.

H2O represents the molecular composition of water.

The number (²) that appears in the first sentence is called a superscript. In the first sentence the superscript indicates that the number represented by C is to be squared. In the second sentence the number (2) is a subscript and indicates that water is composed of two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen. Readers who are acquainted with chemistry, physics, or mathematics will read the sentences correctly. Other readers may not interpret the sentences correctly. There are many treatises that are understandable only to readers who have training or experience with the subject matter being addressed even though the English expressions may be flawless.

The US Army developed some wheeled vehicles that could negotiate a 60 percent grade. A 60 percent grade rises at an angle of 27 degrees from horizontal. Two newspaper journalists encountered the information and wrote articles about the vehicles for their readers. Both journalists mistakenly wrote that the vehicles could negotiate a 60 degree slope. No wheeled vehicle to date (circa 2003) can climb a 60 degree slope. Gravity prevails!

Written communication can fail even though we attempt to communicate effectively. Sometimes we do not intend to communicate effectively. Consider the following paragraph from advertising literature for a major credit card.

Finance charge is calculated by multiplying the daily balance of each segment of your account (e.g., cash advance, purchase, special transfer, and special purchase) by the corresponding daily periodic rates(s) that has been previously disclosed to you. At the end of each day during the billing period, we apply the daily periodic rate for each segment of your account to the daily balance of each segment. Then at the end of the billing period, we add up the results of these daily calculations to arrive at your periodic finance charge for each segment. We add up the results from each segment to arrive at the total periodic finance charge for your account.

If you intend to communicate effectively, you must use language your readers or listeners will understand. If you need to use terms that will probably not be understood, you should explain those terms.

There is only one valid test of written English. If your readers easily understand your message exactly as you intended that it be understood, you have communicated effectively.

[Writing (page 2)]

[Return to Directory]