Sunday, October 31, 2021

Stupefying language – to aid or abet?



“After careful thought, I am too academic and old-(fashioned) to do this properly. I will have to pass.”

I sent this response to one of my regular customers, who asked me to further simplify the simplified text of a contract based on similar language on another site. In other words, I was asked to take simplified English of a legal agreement and turn into street dialect, including the grammar or lack thereof and vocabulary. This request was the first I have ever received of this nature. As such, I delayed response until I had carefully considered the matter. The dilemma for me went beyond my ability to the properly perform this task and involved whether I should do it.

To clarify the task, although I cannot present the actual text due to copyright and confidentiality issues, I will provide a similar example:




Only hair salons with city business licenses can sign this agreement.

If you are working from home and not paying the city to allow you to run your business, forget about it cause we cannot help you.

You think that any idiot with a pair of scissors can join our site? Forget it! Pay the stupid city. Don’t waste our time.


I wish I could say that I am exaggerating but some of the examples provided were far more “conversational”. The nature of the task was clear.

I understand that there is a justification for this task. In every country, a certain percentage of the population, some more and some less, lack basic language skills. The reasons for this deficiency include being immigrants, not finishing school and not even having gone to school. These people are already disadvantaged and discriminating against without unintentionally taking their legal rights away from them. As they cannot understand even simplified legal language, the idea of bringing the language down to their level can be justified in terms of social justice.

However, I was not qualified to do this project due to my background, lack of exposure and language habits. To explain, my father was a journalist and financial writer who chose words like some choose tomatoes at the green grocer: picking each one with care and searching for the gems. He would say: “why use three words when one word will do.” Clearly, that rule would not apply in this assignment. Beyond that, I have lived in Israel for some 30 years now and have no idea how the uneducated currently speak on the street, not that I ever was exposed to that language when I lived project there. Finally, as an English lecturer as well as a translator, I teach and reinforce proper English and believe in its value. Writing such dialogue would border on cheating on myself in a certain sense. Thus, I was clearly not the correct candidate for this job.

Beyond the issue of ability was the problem of the ethics of accepting substandard English as a dialect. The issue of when substandard language becomes respectable is complicated but has a long history. After all, French, Spanish and Italian, among others, began as awful Latin. However, intentionally writing text as if I were Cheech and Chong went beyond funny and entered the range of inappropriate. Although it may overly simplistic to think so, I believe that people of all ages can improve their language at least up to a certain level. It may elitist to say but I feel that they can and should. It simply felt wrong to cater to and legitimatize extremely substandard English.

For that reason, I exercised my right to take my personal stand on this issue and wrote the answer cited above. The issue is not black and white and does involve a dilemma. Specifically, does explaining legal language using street syntax aid people in understanding or abet them by formally legitimatizing their language? I reached my own conclusion. What would your decision be?

* Caption pictures to create full access to the blind.

Picture credit: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=569265">MMT</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=569265">Pixabay</a>


  1. That part of the assignment would have been very difficult for me too. I understand "simplification" as writing in a more direct way, using short sentences. But what you describe borders on the discriminatory.