When I first started in this industry nearly three decades ago, I thought the terms ‘plain language’ and ‘plain English’ were synonymous. Writing professionals from Canada often talked about ‘plain language’ because they dealt with both French and English, but in countries like Australia, New Zealand, USA and Britain the term ‘plain English’ was more common. (By the way, Canada has a long and rich history encouraging plain writing – since the 1920s the Royal Bank of Canada newsletter has provided helpful advice about writing clearly.)
But over the decades I’ve observed a subtle shift; a shift in emphasis or focus.
Plain English professionals tend to focus on features of the language. They aim to make documents clear and concise. They talk about helpful techniques like using familiar words, preferring the active voice, writing with more verbs than nouns, keeping sentences short and writing in a conversational style.
Plain language professionals tend to focus more on readers and the way they respond to a document. They aim to make documents clear, concise and effective. They consider how the reader will encounter the document and the desired response. Plain language professionals see documents as information products, and so often incorporate user testing before publishing, just as we would for any other product.
Plain English professionals often concentrate on correctness; plain language professionals focus on usefulness.
Of course, the overlap between the two groups of professionals is vast. There is more that unites than divides. Plain language writers will use all the plain English techniques, and plain English writers always consider their readers. However, in my view, the gradual shift in focus is real.
The Australian Office of Parliamentary Counsel says:
We prefer to use the term “plain language” rather than “plain English” because we believe that it covers a wider range of techniques and practices. (http://www.opc.gov.au/PLAIN/index.htm)
Even Wikipedia entries reflect this subtle difference in focus:
Plain English is language that is easy to understand, emphasizes clarity and brevity, and avoids overly complex vocabulary. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plain_English)
Plain language is writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly, easily, and completely as possible.
So what? Is this an artificial distinction and ‘splitting hairs’. I think not. The difference is important, especially when writing functional business documents. Writing clear and concise text is not the goal. Effective communication is the goal – and that requires a deliberate focus on readers and usability. Readers should both understand the content and know what to do with it.