Why ‘dumbing down’ is for smart people

Before people understand what plain language is, they often come up with reasons for not using it. A common objection is that it will ‘dumb down’ what they need to say.

People who work in technical fields tend to think it’s impossible to describe complex details without using complex language. Or they feel it’s degrading to use plain language to explain their specialist subject. Sometimes they worry that if they try, other experts will think worse of them.

Image: old books on a shelf.

Some people think they need stuffy language to describe complex things. (Image by Charles Hackley (CC BY 2.0))

But can language really be ‘dumbed down’?

Does explaining a complex subject in a way that’s easy to understand make it any less important or interesting? Does it make intelligent people less likely to engage with the subject? Does it make the subject only fit for ‘dumb’ people?

Of course not.

Using plain language simply makes your subject accessible to a larger number of people. Even if you’re writing for other experts only, they’ll benefit from being able to read, absorb, and use what you’ve written more quickly.

There’s no such thing as ‘dumbing down’. Using plain language means communicating well. And anyone who’s expert at anything should strive to communicate what they know. That’s what smart people do.

6 responses to “Why ‘dumbing down’ is for smart people”

  1. Sarah Van Hoy says:

    I have a question about this – when you are creating documentation specifically for a role that requires a level of education and common sense who complains about something being worded ambiguously that is plain as day, how should I respond? I understand that the reader and audience should be respected and that their feedback should also be respected, but when the language is already so plain it’s painful, how far should I let this feedback go?

    • eleanormeecham says:

      Kia ora Sarah. Thanks very much for your question.

      I recommend talking with the reader to find out exactly what it is that they find ambiguous. Sometimes a confused reader exposes problems in our writing that we might not be able to see ourselves. It’s easy to get so close to the content that we can’t see how someone else might interpret it differently.

      I’m not sure if that’s the issue in this case or not, but talking it through is always a good place to start.

  2. annemarie254 says:

    Specialists in lots of fields jump on the ‘dumbing down’ bandwagon when they hear about plain language. The objective of writing in plain language is to make the content easy to read, easy to understand on one reading, and easy to act on. That to me isn’t ‘dumbing down’; it’s respecting your reader.

    When we transform a document into plain language, we leave the meaning intact and make the content easier to follow and often more concise. We keep legitimate technical or specialist terms (and terms of art), and explain them. But we remove jargon, surplus words, and wordy phrases.

    All in a day’s work too!

  3. Sebastian UK says:

    Nice post, I agree. But I’m not sure everyone would. Economists and lawyers for example 🙂 If you want to make your profession exclusive and potentially more lucrative, a good way is to make the language of your profession impenetrable. That way only ‘experts’ such as yourself will be able to understand the jargon – increasing your value to whoever is trying to understand it! I worked in policy for five years and constantly battled against people who wanted technical language to make themselves feel special and above the common man. I hated that attitude.

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