Plain English Part 2

How not to write

As many plain language guidelines say, examples are very helpful. Examples of plain vs. un-plain (?) language are helpful too. But nitpicking someone’s writing is not nice. So I’ve been on the lookout for basically something I can shame its bad writing. And, I found one.

Government websites communicate directly to the public, so the target audience is not academics. Highly technical government agencies such as Nasa or the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, in particular, often communicate research findings from projects funded with taxpayer money. So when it comes to science, website articles are not only about providing credible and accurate information, they’re supposed to sound exciting so people feel like their work was worth spending money on.

But take a look at this. The text under “Why Study Hydrogen Storage” reads as follows:

Hydrogen storage is a key enabling technology for the advancement of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies in applications including stationary power, portable power, and transportation. Hydrogen has the highest energy per mass of any fuel; however, its low ambient temperature density results in a low energy per unit volume, therefore requiring the development of advanced storage methods that have potential for higher energy density.

What is stationary power? And what is portable power? It sounds like it came straight out of an academic paper about hydrogen fuel cells. Frankly, I didn’t find this web page while looking for a bad example of plain writing; I was in fact fascinated by hydrogen technologies and wanted to read more about what exciting things are going on in the very front of the related sciences. The header “Why Study Hydrogen Storage” was enough to make me ready to go down the hydrogen rabbit hole. Alas, that one paragraph was also enough to kill my enthusiasm, for the day at least.

How to fix it

Anyone who voluntarily lands on that web page is eager to learn and probably passionate about the topic. Their writing should cater to that desire and try best not to snuff out their passion.

This article is chock full of nominalization and jargon. Nominalization is when a verb becomes a noun, like “advancing science” becoming “the advancement of science.” Nominalization is a habit that dies hard, and I’m no stranger to it because the Korean language is heavy on nouns, which sometimes spills into my writing habits.

Jargon is special words or expressions only people of a certain profession or group can understand. Plain looking words like enabling and technologies can become jargon when put together: “enabling technologies.” The related Wikipedia page describes enabling technology as “an invention or innovation that can be applied to drive radical change in the capabilities of a user or culture.” The Wikipedia page also draws a contrast with general-purpose technology but I don’t quite understand how they’re different, since I’m not an engineer. Other jargon words are so obviously jargony (e.g., stationary power, portable power, ambient temperature, etc). But some jargon is inevitable.

My attempt at fixing it would be:

Hydrogen storage can make or break hydrogen and fuel cell technologies such as stationary power, portable power, and transportation. This is because hydrogen has the highest energy per mass but not per volume. Think of it this way: We want to travel a mile. We would need less hydrogen than gasoline to power a car to do that. But your car would need an extra trailer to store that much hydrogen, as opposed to a fraction of the gas tank filled with gasoline. If we want to tap into the rich source of hydrogen energy (which we do), we’ve got to find a way to pack as much hydrogen in a unit volume that’s at least as cost-efficient as its gasoline equivalent.

Perhaps, this is not the tone the writer intended to use, since my version is more conversational than formal. And I admit that I’m not a plain language expert, so I believe there’s a lot that can be done to further improve it. But if I can make boring science stuff tolerable, an expert communicator definitely can and should. It’s the law.

Daeyoung Lim
Daeyoung Lim
Statistics PhD Candidate

My research interests include Bayesian statistics, biostatistics, and computational statistics. I’m an English grammar fiend and a staunch proponent of plain language.