Turning inner space into outer space

April 2, 2016

A text editor that restricts your vocabulary might be a good idea if it actually worked

I was going to write a review of a free new app called Cleartext, but that plan fell apart — mainly because it’s almost impossible to type in more than a few words without getting blocked.

Cleartext allows you to use only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. The idea is that anything you write with those words will be instantly understandable by anyone.

I thought I’d be a smarty-pants and write this blog post in Cleartext. I wanted to start with something like: “I’m writing this post in a text editor . . .” Right away it wanted me to use “I am” instead of “I’m.” Fair enough. But then it wouldn’t allow either “text” or “editor.”

In fact, it wouldn’t even allow me to type in a sample sentence on the app’s website.

Still, I was intrigued because Cleartext is based on a the idea behind a book by one of my favourite cartoonists, Randall Munroe of XKCD fame. He has a book called Thing Explainer that takes really complicated subjects and explains them using only the 1,000 most common words.

A great example is Up Goer Five — a diagram of a rocket ship with all the parts described in a way that a child could understand.

I was also reminded of the story behind Green Eggs and Ham. On a bet with his publisher, Bennett Cerf, author Dr. Seuss restricted the vocabulary of the book to just 50 words. It was published in 1960, and remains one of the most popular children’s books ever.

So there’s nothing wrong with the inspiration behind Cleartext. With a few tweaks, it might actually be useful. (It doesn’t even accept some of the words used by Munroe — “escape,” for example.)

The downside is that restricting your vocabulary can rob your writing of richness and precision. Given a choice, I would rather use one word that means exactly what I want it to mean. The alternative is to use more words that give only an approximation of the meaning.

I saw an exchange on Twitter recently about the meaning of “electrocution”. Look it up on Google and the first result will be an excerpt from Wikipedia explaining that it means “death caused by electric shock.” It’s actually based, in part, on the word “execution.”

Still, it’s quite often used to mean a bad electric shock that requires hospitalization. All you have to do is scroll down a bit in the search results to find news stories that use this meaning. From Global News, for example, we learn that: “Man suffers significant burns during electrocution incident.”

Since he didn’t die, we can’t really say he was electrocuted. But language has a way of evolving, so purists may have to get used to its secondary meaning: “The word is also sometimes used to describe non-fatal injuries due to electricity.”

I can let that one pass but will always cringe when I see “lay” misused. I constantly hear about people “laying” on the bed, or deciding to “lay” low. My question is: what are they laying? Bricks? Eggs?

When you lay, you have to lay something. If it’s just something you’re doing yourself, then “lie” is the word you want. I wonder if we can blame this state of affairs on Bob Dylan.

In 1969, Dylan started singing, “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.” I’m pretty sure he just wanted her to lie down. But I have to admit, “Lie, lady, lie” would never have caught on.

Bonus link: Ever wondered how many words you know? Try Test Your Vocab.