Compare these two sentences: 1) Lyttleton hypothesized long ago that Triton and Pluto originated as adjacent prograde satellites of Neptune, and 2) A physical unclonable function (PUF) is a hardware security primitive that exploits the inherent randomness of its manufacturing process to enable attestation of the entity wherein it is embodied.  One of these was written about forty years ago, and the other was written this year.  Take a guess which is which.

If you guessed that the second sentence is the more recent one, you guessed correctly.  What gave it away?  The fact that you just read the paper from which I took the first sentence, and therefore know how old it is?  The length of the sentence?  The contents?  The word choice?  What stood out most to me was the opacity.  The first sentence, the older one, is clear and direct.  It lays out exactly what the subsequent paper is going to be about in clear terminology.  When you read that first sentence, you don’t have to puzzle over what it’s trying to say; it’s pretty much out in front.

With the second sentence, not so much.  The first time I read this, I stopped, and said something along the lines of ‘excuse me?’  Then I read it a second and third time, and finally puzzled out what it was trying to communicate.  All of those words translate to “A physical unclonable function is a fundamental element of security systems that is based on the fact that inherent randomness in the manufacture of an object can be decoded to provide information about where it was made.”  Yes, my version is more words, but it is much less opaque.

I don’t generally have a problem with using complicated words and convoluted sentences structures – in fact, I love using them, and reading them, when they are well-wrought and serve a purpose.  There are nuances that can be communicated by plucking out just the right word, or by forming a sentence or phrase in just such a way, which would be completely absent or heavy-handed or otherwise poorly executed if done some other way.  When I read that sentence, though, it felt like reading an essay written by some high school student who just discovered an online thesaurus.  It wasn’t communicating anything extra, just deliberately obfuscating the point of the entire sentence, which is arguably contrary to the purpose of creating the sentence in the first place.  The last bit of the sentence is what really throws me: “to enable attestation of the entity wherein it is embodied.”  That sounds like how I used to try to talk, twisting things around just so that I could sound more intelligent, and instead accomplishing only the talent of sounding nonsensical.

In my weekly reading of scientific papers from journals like Science Advances (an issue of which being the source of the sentence I am presently excoriating), and my less-consistent reading of older papers in the course of more targeted research, I’ve noticed that, over time, scientific papers have become significantly less readable.  It can’t just be blamed on the contents – there are deliberate choices in sentence structures and verbiage that have changed over time and made a modern paper much less approachable than an older one.  I can read a scientific paper outside of my specialty from twenty years ago and understand everything but the most specific jargon, while today I can read papers in my specialty and have to sit and wrestle with the paragraphs to get them to make sense.  Half the time, they end up not saying anything at all, or even contradicting themselves.  There was one paper whose data section determined that increased average temperatures resulted in increased biodiversity, and then provided a conclusion in which they contradicted what their data asserted.

I understand the temptation.  There’s a certain thrill to deploying words in complicated ways, a little like building a Rube Goldberg machine.  Sure, you don’t really need a contraption the size of a small house to drop a marble through a series of tricks until it finally swings a lever that cracks a pistachio, but there’s a thrill just to being able to do it.  Words can be the same way.  I don’t need to construct elaborate confections of polysyllabic verbiage that I might ensorcell my audience with my delectable encomiums, but there’s still a certain excitement in doing just that, no matter how impractical it might be.

It’s a temptation which I strive to resist, however.  Yes, some might say that this is the pot calling the kettle black.  Microsoft Word’s editor function is always telling me that my sentences and words are too long, and that I should change that so that my Flesch-Kincaid reading level is appropriate for eighth grade.  That, to use a deliberately long word, is codswallop – I don’t need to talk down to my readers, who I am confident are a spectacularly erudite bunch, and thanks to the power of the internet, it has never been easier to look up words with which you might happen to be unfamiliar.  I do that all the time when I read older texts, like Milton’s Areopagitica, which is how I discovered that the online Merriam Webster dictionary does not provide all of its definitions for free – if you want to know the less common words, you actually have to pay a subscription.  For all of that, though I do not deliberately dilute my writing with boring words and tiresome sentence structures, I have also learned that taking pains to make a piece of writing more complicated is foolish (in almost all cases – there are instances where you might want to do just that, but that’s another post).

All of this is to say: if you’re out there writing a scientific paper, think about what you’re writing, and what the best way to say it might be.  If a phrase like “to enable attestation of the entity wherein it is embodied” is really what first springs into your mind, more power to you, but I am skeptical that is the case.  That is the sort of tortured phrase that is liable to result from a lot of revisions by a group of people trying to flagellate others with the might of their intellects, which are apparently repressed by the weight of their egos, to be obliged to hide behind such artifice.  The purpose of language is ultimately communication.  I might not always succeed, but my goal is almost always to choose the clearest way of communicating a concept – not the simplest, or the shortest, or the longest, but the clearest (and maybe the cleanest).  That shouldn’t change whether you’re writing epic fantasy or a paper about genetic physical unclonable functions in human cells.

One thought on “Communicating Clearly

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