Tag Archives: Plain English

Why I am a plain language zealot

All business and government documents should be written in plain language. These are ‘functional documents’; people are expected to use these documents (information products) to do something.

Writing in plain language is important because:

Plain language builds a more just society

Writing plainly means more people will be able to read and understand your message.

If our audiences cannot follow legal documents, information leaflets or letters, there is the risk of their breaking the law, or failing to do what is expected of them or receiving what is rightfully theirs.” (Tasmanian Government)

Choosing not to write plainly can introduce social disadvantage. Excluding people from being able to easily understand contracts, laws and other information limits their choices. They can’t fully participate in society.

Plain language displays clear thinking

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” (attributed to Albert Einstein) No matter who said it, the idea is helpful.

When you have a deep understanding of an idea, you can find words, metaphors and images that help other people understand it too. You can explain the idea simply and with precision. If you only have a superficial understanding, you are likely to express the idea vaguely. It is unlikely to be written plainly.

If people understand more of what you’re saying, they will likely feel that you make sense.(Hoa Loranger)

Plain language aids effectiveness and efficiency

Business and government documents need to be both effective (achieve purpose) and efficient (read and understood quickly). Writing in plain language helps achieve both goals.

Complex, technical or pompous writing does not convey ideas quickly – readers have to battle to make sense of what is written. Writing plainly means using words and structures that your audience can quickly understand. (Knowing your audience is vital – when writing for technical readers you may use terms that lay people would call jargon.)

Writing plainly using familiar words and simple structures is not dumbing down. It helps less able readers to understand, and helps more able readers to read faster.

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Claiming something is written plainly does not make it so

I came across this sentence recently:

The text provides, in plain English, an overview of what is necessary to give effect to a valid advanced care directive, and through illustrative and contemporary examples, enhances our understanding of the importance of “planning ahead”.

I don’t think many plain language professionals would say this is plainly written, despite the claim. When you have written plainly, you do not need to tell people you have done so – it will be obvious to your readers. They will be engaging with your ideas, not your writing. (reminds me of one of my other guiding principles: Never trust anyone who has to say “Trust me”.)

Some particular problems:

  • ‘to give effect to’: This is an uncommon and somewhat pretentious phrase, likely to put many readers off. Its use is unclear – it has the immediate sense of ‘how to write an advanced care directive’, but the literal meaning is ‘when your advanced care directive becomes operational’.
  • ‘an overview of what is necessary’: Too wordy.
  • ‘enhances our understanding of the importance of’: Too wordy.
  • ‘illustrative and contemporary’: Big words where small ones will do.
  • Many ideas in a sentence that is too long. As a rule of thumb: one point, one sentence.

A possible rewrite:

This booklet explains how to make an advanced care directive. The examples show how planning ahead is very important.

Can you provide a better rewrite? I’ll leave this post open for comments for a while.

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