Why Don’t They Speak English?

On Friday night I attended a superb performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. Although abridged for its youthful audience, this Hamlet was faithful to the story and characters and freshly acted by just five players seamlessly changing roles. I loved it from beginning to end.

Early in the first act, I heard a child behind me whisper to her mother, "Shouldn’t they speak English?" I smiled. At the intermission, my own daughter said, "Why don’t they speak English?" I frowned. I wanted my daughter, the daughter of an English major, to appreciate Shakespeare’s language. But it was difficult to argue with my 13-year-old that they were speaking English, since the language required so much effort and concentration from the young audience.

A few hours before the play, I had led a Better Business Writing class, where the same thing had happened, only I had played my daughter’s role. In response to a participant who used long, flowing, complex sentences and obscure vocabulary, I found myself asking "What exactly are you saying?" and "What does that word mean?" (the professional versions of "Why don’t you speak English?").

To the writer, the messages were clear. But to me, the reader, they defied comprehension. Like my daughter and the other girl in the dark at Hamlet, I had to work too hard to grasp the meaning.

Unlike Hamlet with its tragic ending, Friday’s Better Business Writing class ended happily. The "Shakespeare" of our class came to understand the value of plain words and simple structures. He promised to continue to use them to meet the needs of his audience.

But what of the real Shakespeare? Should he have written concise sentences in plain English? No! With his rich language, exquisite wit, and flowing rhythms, he has been moving audiences for centuries. I hope that when my daughter grows up a bit, she will appreciate him too.

Syntax Training