When Simple Is Complicated
Write in simple English.
Sounds easy enough. But doing it well is harder than it sounds.
Here’s an example. What is the most complex word in the English language? By complex, I mean, what one English word has more varied meanings than any other? And if your guess has more than three letters, guess again. The most complex word in the English language (at the moment) is the word “run.”
Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recently revealed that “run” has become the single word with the most potential meanings in all of English. That little word boasts no fewer than 645 different usage cases for the verb form alone.
The most common use of “run,” according to the OED’s upcoming third edition, is the obvious: “to go with quick steps on alternate feet.” It then proceeds to “run on” for 75 columns of type.
Now consider that tiny word and this basic “rule” for writing in a simple English style. “Each word that appears in a piece of writing must have only one meaning, and that meaning must be consistent every time the word appears in the text.”
That means that every word that can have multiple meanings must be checked for consistency. Consider just how many individual words in English have multiple meanings that are context dependent, and you can begin to see the point. And that is just one rule!
Then there are the rules about limiting passives, allowing no sentences of over 18 words or paragraphs of more than 200 words, always including the relative pronoun, eliminating phrasal verbs, avoiding noun strings, removing metaphors. That is “when simple is complicated”!
And that has been the complication we have been trying to manage this August. While we have prepared our “little book,” Simple Truths, for translation multiple times, the prospect of making the Travel Guide to the Bible translation-ready was a significantly larger task. One book has 6,000 words. The other has more than 60,000 words.
So, with the help of one of the best editors I have ever known (Angela McCarty), we worked through the 270-page book, phrase-by-phrase, line-by-line, word-by-word. That more thorough edit was needed to make sure the manuscript was as clear and as unambiguous as possible before putting it into the hands of the translators.
It wasn’t surprising to find a few minor issues – missing spaces, misplaced scripture references, small layout errors. But we were surprised to find a few pages that needed serious attention. We rewrote one chapter completely to change the way we had used the historical present tense to avoid both grammatical and theological ambiguities.
It took a while, but as of the final week of August, the edits are complete, the work is formatted, and the book is ready for translation. These translation projects, once completed, will put the Travel Guide to the Bible into the languages of an additional 450,000,000 people.
for more on the word “run”, check out this op/ed article from the NYTimes.