The metaphor post got me thinking of just how much miscommunication occurs because people do not speak or write directly to the point. Aside from this blog and the occasional technical paper, I write lots of fiction for my own amusement. To improve my results I read more guides for writers than any engineer ought to, but over the years it has helped me understand just how tricky it can be to get your message across to the reader.
Technical writing is in many ways easier to understand, although it seldom “reads” as smoothly as we would like. No one expects an assembly instruction manual to have a plot, witty phrasing, or colorful descriptions. When it absolutely has to go together and work, we accept frequent re-use of words, sentence fragments, and even drawings in place of words. Our industry standards are written and edited per a style manual that aims for a simple-to-follow, passionless monotone.
Standards have to be translatable into other languages without loss of meaning. The style manual assists the editors in making sure that the text has only one meaning, much like a computer program. No one would trust a computer program that gave different results depending upon the viewpoint or mood of the operator.
Outside of technical documents, that passionless monotone gets old fast. But when we encounter even well written and edited documents there is a risk of misunderstanding; different readers come away with different understandings. This is particularly true with humorous or sarcastic pieces. Some people just don’t get the joke, and if you have to explain it, it cannot be considered a joke.
I read somewhere that legendary wit H.L. Mencken proposed as early as 1924 that a “sarcasm font” be created to remind the denser reader that they were reading a piece that was supposed to be amusing. Ninety some years later the need is still there; a Reverse Italics Movement has begun on the Internet to finally implement Old H.L.’s vision of left-leaning italics: (http://thenextweb.com/dd/2011/12/12/finally-sarcasm-has-a-voice-in-print-with-its-own-font/#gref).
Just think of how much heartburn could be relieved if everyone recognized humor when it is intended. We would still be stuck with hurt feelings over the spoken word, but that is a problem for another day.