Principles of Plain English

By Mark Nichol

Perspicuous written communication is fundamental in every aspect of human interaction — or should I say, “Clear writing is important whenever people interact”? If I support the triumph of plain English over byzantine jargon and sesquipedalianism, I should. But rather than explain what plain English is, I’ll state what it isn’t: It isn’t all about short sentences. It isn’t all about single-syllable words. It isn’t elimination of elaboration at the expense of erudition. (I mean, it isn’t dumbing down.)

Here are five areas in which plain English is, fortunately, making inroads:

Business

Remember when you saw a delivery truck or a repair van and could tell which products or services it carried or facilitated? That’s still often the case, especially with known brands, but how many times have you read text printed on such a vehicle and scratched your head, wondering, “What business is that business in?”

Freight companies used to do “trucking,” then they provided “delivery solutions”; now, they’re all about “logistics.” But they’re still in the business of moving things from point A to point B. Many vehicles, however, especially those in the fleets of high-tech companies, either don’t offer any information other than the company name and a phone number (and perhaps a URL), or the van is labeled with meaningless phrases about “solutions” and “logistics.” Don’t these companies want potential customers and clients to know what they offer?

Stationary corporate communications, including Web site copy, press releases, and mission statements, frequently fail to enlighten the target audience as well. Some companies, though, make an effort to deliver their messages with simple, straightforward language.

Government

Federal, state, and local government agencies have long been notorious for obfuscating official documents: In their efforts to project an air of authority (in more than one sense of the word), many government employees have produced reams of often impenetrable prose. Fortunately, the federal Plain Writing Act and two subsequent executive orders require government-issued publications to be written in simple, easy-to-understand English.

Law

It’s a cynical sentiment that the notorious density of legal documents is calculated to perpetuate the need for lawyers, but it’s hard to avoid feeling that way when confronted with an oxymoronically named brief or a contract that’s anything but contracted. Some attorneys will argue that legal writing requires precision and specificity of language, but that is a poor defense of gratuitously complex language employed when the supposed intent is to make the subject matter as transparent as possible. Many lawyers, however, now opt to write in simple sentences and avoid legal jargon.

Law Enforcement

You’ve seen it time and time again: The chief of police, or a spokesperson, drones on about how an investigation was carried out or how a crisis is being handled. Attempting to appear official and in control of the situation, the speaker overwhelms listeners with jarring jargon and multisyllabic meanderings. Police reports, similarly, often stiffly, obscurely relate simple sequences of events in a style that complicates rather than communicates. Now, fortunately, law enforcement agencies are turning to resources like the handbook Plain English for Cops to help personnel write simple, clear accounts.

Academia and Scholarship

Many academics, including those who write for popular audiences, write clearly and well, but just as many more seem to try to outdo their colleagues in trying to write journal articles and other scholarly documents in a style as bafflingly complicated and convoluted as possible — and in doing so, are poor role models for younger professors, graduate assistants, and other students who read their research. As with other authority figures, researchers in the natural sciences and the social sciences alike often seem to below that dense prose enhances their expertise.

Rationales for Rational Writing

Bryan Garner, the dean of clear writing (and author of the authoritative yet coherent guidebook Garner’s Modern American Usage), offers these four motivations for writers to favor simple writing:

1. Writers of complex prose risk confusing themselves as well as others.

2. Reading complex prose is more time-consuming than reading plain English.

3. Writing plain English is hard work, and thus, if writers feel that they must labor to succeed in their efforts, clear writing is a well-earned achievement.

4. Clarity is the primary goal of writing.

Again, these arguments should not discourage eloquence, and I admit that I sometimes indulge in overwrought writing (usually, for I hope is humorous effect). But join me in trying these tips:

1. Ask yourself whether curt, clear Anglo-Saxon vocabulary might be more suitable than Latinate language in any given passage.

2. Don’t avoid subordinate clauses or parenthetical phrases, but keep them to a minimum, and keep each one succinct.

3. Monitor your musings for redundancy and other enemies of conciseness.

4. Consider your audience when determining the degree of formality you will adopt in a given piece of writing.

5. Be cautious about incorporating jargon.

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15 Responses to “Principles of Plain English”

  • Rachel Cooper

    Great tips as always. Academic writers in particular should know better, but fewer people are exposed to academic writing than to, say, business writing. Heaven save us from solutions and logistics.

    You may want to change “below” to “believe” under the Academia heading. (Do I win a prize for noticing one of your rare errors?)

    Thanks for all your useful and thoughtful tips, Mark.

  • brendan stallard

    “It isn’t all about single-syllable words. It isn’t elimination of elaboration at the expense of erudition.”

    I thought the above contained all that sentence required.

    I found this, (I mean, it isn’t dumbing down.) a step too far. I mentioned it to my wife and she mentioned that perhaps you were being ironic.

    I’m a furriner, (Irish/English) so could you explain, por favor, Senor?

    brendan

  • Roberta B.

    Excellent reminders………and very clever!

  • Mark MacKay

    The poet Denise Levertov once told me it was important when writing “to murder your little darlings.” I have that phrase on a card above my computer – a clarion call for clarity.

  • MT Nickerson

    Nice advice, Mark. Too many writers are far more merciful toward their ‘little darlings’ than they should be.

  • David Logan

    Principles of Plain English
    by Mark Nichol
    Perspicuous

    …an item entitled “Principles of Plain English” commences with the word Perspicuous…?

  • Mark Nichol

    Brendan:

    It was an attempt at humor; the parenthesis is a translation of the previous sentence.

  • Mark Nichol

    David:

    You’ll notice, perhaps, that I (deliberately) wrote an oversyllabized lead sentence and then immediately provided a revision in plain English.

  • thebluebird11

    Mark, even if not everybody gets your brand of humor, there are many of us who do…don’t you worry ’bout a thing! I honestly don’t know how you can even do this every day, find new topics and expound on them so eloquently and knowledgeably. I do not subscribe to any other feeds; as far as I’m concerned, DWT is the only “fix” I need, every day! Keep up the great work 🙂

  • Dr D P Singh

    I find medical writing guilty of indulging in a lot of verbosity, e.g., prognosticating factors for predictors.

  • Frank Elliott

    I have labored for years to translate academic and bureaucratic prose into something comprehensible to the lay reader. I have never ascribed their use of jargon to an effort to consciously project an air of authority, or to maliciously obfuscate their point. I sincerely believe they are incaple of expressing themselves in plain English. It’s comical, really.

  • John Peterson

    In the “Business” section, it seems to me that “Stationary”, beginning the last paragraph, should have been spelled “Stationery.”

  • Mark Nichol

    John:

    I correctly used stationary in the sense of “immobile” to provide a contrast with advertising on wheels.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “The increasing popularity of plain language, the concept of writing clear, simple prose, is making it easier for people to understand legal documents and government forms.”

    I have been under the impression that what has been happening has been the DECREASING popularity of plain language.
    I have been reading, or trying to read, too many documents and publications that are loaded with jargon, little-used acronyms, and so forth.

    I have written back to some of the sources to explain that common acronyms and initializations are O.K.: IBM, NATO, NASA, UN, AT&T, USSR — but the rest of them need to be spelled out on their first appearance.

    Now, we are bombarded with mysterious ones like POTUS and SCOTUS. Regardless of what they might have in France, Mexico, etc., when writing in English, The President is the President of the United States, and The Supreme Court is the Supreme Court of the United States.
    The United States was the first country to have a President or a Supreme Court, so therefore we OWN those terms on historical grounds. Likewise, the United States was the first country to have the dollar as its unit of money, and it was the first large country to have a written Consititution.
    Disregard minor, tiny places like San Marino.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    “When writing in English, The President is the President of the United States, and The Supreme Court is the Supreme Court of the United States.
    The United States was the first country to have a President or a Supreme Court, so therefore we OWN those terms on historical grounds.”

    Baloney. What a US-centric little view you have.

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