Linguistically Simple, Theologically Clear, Biblically Faithful

By Tom Castor | June 13, 2023 |

Linguistically Simple, Theologically Clear, and Biblically Faithful. These three-word sets give some sense of who we are and what we hope to accomplish in our writing. But they also provide an internal reminder, a collection of checkpoints for us as we write. None are redundant. Linguistically Simple shapes Theologically Clear on one side and Biblically Faithful on the other. Theologically Clear goes with the Linguistically Simple in one sense. The language we will use to communicate the theology we teach will not stand in the way (or at least we intend it this way) of understanding the theological points we are attempting to make. Much theology comes to us in dense language. As one studies theology at increasingly serious levels, they are exposed to new vocabulary and increasingly complicated explanations using that vocabulary. Theology becomes less and less friendly for the average, but no less sincere, reader who wants to understand what God says and how he says it. We all (as believers at whatever stage of our journey after Christ) want to know who God is and how God is. That is theology proper. But as we go deeper (especially in our academic pursuits of theology), we pile up a substantial stack of theological vocabulary and seem obligated to use it in increasing amounts as we progress in our study and teaching. 

Theological clarity sometimes requires thin slicing of concepts that require well-sharpened tools (like precise, fine-tuned vocabulary). But we hope to achieve the clarity we seek to communicate in ordinary language. Theologically Clear means that we will try NOT to be theologically ambiguous or muddle-headed. When necessary, we will try to thin-slice ideas as required (when required) and dig down in places where a surface explanation is inadequate. However, we will work hard to achieve that clarity in a way that does not leave readers behind or unclear about what point we are trying to make.

No compromise in theological clarity. 

That means we must establish theological positions that are distinguished from other theological positions. Every “This is what we believe is true” implies that there are other things that we believe are NOT true. Sometimes clarity requires that those things be spelled out. Perhaps precision is the destination, but it is our ambition to get to that destination in a way that is easy to follow AND allows the follower to lead others along those same paths.

Linguistically Simple entails a few definable methods we are committed to using as we write. One is the use of reduced, commonly understood vocabulary. People who teach English to those who natively speak something other than English have made a science of this. As they progress on the subject matter, they have published multiple lists of words representing BASIC vocabulary sets. Some are derived from the most common words in the English literary corpus. With the increasing help of computers, it is now possible to look at (examine, scan, and evaluate) billions of English literature samples to see what words are most common in multiple contexts. So it is a matter of simple math to develop a list or lists of the most common English words. As a result of this kind of study (and other studies that predate the wide use of computers), a list of essential English words can be assembled. Those lists get compared, contracted, blended, and further analyzed. There are lists like this that fine-tune searches and limit the material under consideration to various genres, as well as lists based on Children’s Literature, ESL/EAL textbooks, or repair manuals and recipes. We have chosen a list used by Bible translators and writers whose goals we share. 

We have also chosen to think through the research on reading comprehension. That research provides us with not only sets of vocabulary but insights into how that vocabulary gets used. Since many English words can be used as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs without changing forms, we try to use that awareness to avoid ambiguity as we write. Then, of course, the way sentences and paragraphs are formed impacts readability. Compound complex sentences exist—a sentence with two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. Like the compound sentence, the compound-complex has two main clauses. Like a complex sentence, it has at least one subordinate clause. The subordinate clause can be part of the independent clause. 

“His blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-mooned spectacles, and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). 

J. K. Rowling can craft sentences like that one. But we are determined not to write such sentences. That means that we will not likely be hailed as literary masters or anticipating Rowling-like accolades. Still, it does NOT mean that we are engaged in a lazy approach to writing which lacks the imagination to create such sentences.  

It is not easy to do the Linguistically Simple bit. That Rowling sentence is 28 words long and requires a grade 10 reading level (Flesch-Kincaid) to read and decipher the sentence easily. 

“His eyes were light, bright, and sparkling. They were blue. And he wore glasses that were shaped like half-moons. He had a very long nose. And his nose looked like it had been broken. Maybe broken at least two times.” 

Not as beautiful by any means. A bit longer (40+ words as opposed to 28. But those words are in six sentences, with the longest only ten words long. Readability (according to Flesch-Kincaid) at grade level 0.3. Gunning Fog index is down from 13.0 to 2.7, and the Reading Ease score is down from 75.0 to 105, which being interpreted means that an ESL student or someone who speaks English at a basic level, regardless of how they became literate in English, can understand those words.

There are still some issues with my rewrite. There are still some passive notions (someone had to shape the glasses that way, someone or something had to break his nose) and a sentence that has an inferred subject (“his nose” in sentence six), but we would typically let those sentences (and scores) stand. The point is that every idea covered in Rowling’s sentence is covered in ours. But, though we increased the number of words, the description is more readable. 

The other part of the Linguistically Simple set is that material crafted this way is more “translatable.” Translatability is the property of being translatable. Because we write anticipating translation, linguistic simplicity works to help us (through translators) produce material that is as clear in the receptor language as it is in English. Again, linguistic research has concluded that the source material’s quality and clarity is the most statistically significant variable contributing to translation accuracy (the difference between a good and bad translation). So, for example, if the English to be translated is complex or poor, the resulting Pashto translation will tend to be less accurate and convey the source material’s flaws.

Clear and Simple Media materials (books, stories, websites) appear in 50 languages. Our experience thus far makes that research believable.

Writing this way also allows us to benefit from the exponential advancements in computer-assisted translation programs available today. Now more than twenty commonly used computer translation platforms are available for increasing reasonable prices. Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, Unbabel, DeepL, and – all offer computer translation that produces reliable results. Several now use neural network technology that allows a computer to improve translation accuracy as it “learns” or becomes familiar with the source material, the written style, and the input corrections the writer/readers make. There may come a time soon when such machine translations will not only be accurate but can ‘localize’ the style of a translation to sound as if the translation came from a native speaker in a regional dialect. If this ever becomes the case (or as the trend toward those outcomes continues), writing the way we have chosen to write could result in our ability to reach more people in more languages in a shorter time than we could by doing a manual translation. If the translation quality improves, the competition to produce affordable Computer-Assisted Translation options could also allow us to do this at a significantly reduced cost.

One of the challenges we face, which may not be evident at first, is how to write with this clarity and simplicity to an adult audience. It is possible to “write down” to an adult audience so as to offend the reader’s adult sensibilities. If an adult reader gets the sense that he is reading something intended for children, it doesn’t matter how lofty the subject matter is, the content will go unread, and the books (for example) will sit on a shelf gathering exotic dust. Some of the answer IS found in the nature of the subject matter. When discussing the biblical concept of the Trinity, for example, the simplest of language will not generally diminish the complexity of the topic. But it IS possible to, in an attempt to be linguistically simple, appear to be condescending to an adult reader. That is a true and challenging problem. Simple and simplistic are part of the same word family but are very different.

Biblically Faithful is the final word set, but perhaps the anchor for the others. All three of these word pairings are connected and affected by the others. But this one carries a bit more weight than the other two. The scripture is God’s word to us and is the final authority for faith and practice on what we must believe and how to behave. Thus, to be biblically faithful means that we must not, in any way, allow our desire to be linguistically simple to be a reason to in some way compromise or be unfaithful to the clear teaching of the Bible. All we write on matters of faith and practice must be derived from scripture and measured by scripture. We must understand the balance and approach of the scriptures to help us govern our process and balance our emphases. 

Linguistically Simple

Theologically Clear

Biblically Faithful

Guidelines, parameters, goals, and aspirations for Clear and Simple Media that we hope that we can be faithful to in all that we do.

Tom Castor

Thomas Castor, founder of Clear and Simple Media Group, is a seasoned writer and communicator who has been delivering content with clarity and simplicity for 30 years.