Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” a quote from Leonardo da Vinci, for me refers to the simplicity of language, which I would like to reflect on in today’s blog entry. I’ll start with a personal experience. When I was working on my master’s thesis a couple of years ago, I remember the feedback that I received from my academic advisor after he handed back to me the first several pages of my first draft. The word that he used sounded almost hurtful at that moment. He said that the language of my writing was not “crisp”! And then he added, “Less is more.” At that moment, I was not quite sure if I understood what the expression “less is more meant,” as I believed that my thesis was supposed to be written in academic language, which, according to me, entailed complicated syntactic structures and long words.

Being crisp was a characteristic too simple to me, almost oversimplified, and thus plain and ordinary, and certainly not academic. Only later, in the process of working on my thesis, I have come to realize that the two famous expressions that I learned in school, “Genius is simplicity” and “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” can be, and most likely should be, applied to writing.

Similarly, our L2 learners oftentimes assume that the use of flowery or pompous language makes them sound more proficient, intelligent, and even more educated. Most of us writing teachers will probably recall seeing such expressions in their writing as “reach a conclusion” instead of “conclude,” or “X is dependent upon” instead of “X depends on,” or other wasted words and phrases, such as “it should be noted that,” “it needs to be said that,” “due to the fact that,” and “in terms of.” At the beginning, it may be hard for our students to understand that the writing loaded with such empty words and phrases is not only hard to process, but it may also sound awkward and sometimes even pragmatically incorrect, to say the least.

Just a few months ago, I was reading a study of Hinkel (2003), “Simplicity Without Elegance: Features of Sentences in L1 and L2 Academic Texts.” The findings of her study were quite predictable: nonnative speakers have a limited range of vocabulary and grammatical structures; therefore, the author encouraged L2 instructors to implement more activities that help learners expand their “syntactic and lexical repertoire.” The problem addressed by Hinkel is the opposite to the one that I referred to above. However, I was attracted to the title of Hinkel’s article: “Simplicity Without Elegance,” which assumes that simplicity is not necessarily a negative phenomenon.

So speaking about either the simplicity or complexity of language we have two extremes: one is L2 writers using basic vocabulary and oversimplified syntactic structures, and the other is L2 learners favoring flowery language forms. I’d agree that the first one most likely comes from a mere lack of language proficiency and even lack of both reading and writing experiences. The second extreme, on the other hand, may be the result of the students’ desire to increase the level of formality of their writing. So I am wondering how we, teachers, can find a balance between this simplicity without elegance and the simplicity that is the ultimate sophistication.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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