Plain English

Welcome to our plain English page.

During the month of December 2011, and also in January 2012, we’ll be discussing the topic of plain English.

On this page you will find a growing list of resources regarding about this topic.

If you would like to contribute with a link or links, or a guest post on the topic, please contact us, or leave a comment.

Plain English – our blog posts

Plain and simple
There is a tendency – widespread in officialdom but by no means exclusive to it – to jazz up language by replacing plain words with fancy ones for no good reason, for example with what Arthur Quiller-Couch called “vague woolly abstract nouns”.

Fuzzy writing, fussy reading
Too often people, including editors, treat minor slips as though they were terrible, shameful acts.  … This can make people anxious about their language and nervous around editors. Criticism can be constructive and compassionate; why not keep the judgement and scorn to a minimum?

The fashion for inkhorn terms
The ornate style of writing was once in fashion. It combined elaborate syntax with a multitude of rhetorical devices and what became known as “inkhorn terms”. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and inkhorn term is what Michael Quinion calls “a term of gentlemanly abuse” that was applied to fancy words borrowed from classical languages during the gradual shift from Middle to Modern English.

Plainness and purity: wordcraft for the loreless
Barnes’ motivation was democratic rather than primarily linguistic: to forge an English that was accessible to the common people. He wasn’t entirely consistent … but, more importantly, he allowed his admirable linguistic awareness to take precedence over his primary purpose. Surely, even in 19th-century rural Dorset, school was a familiar word, regardless of its Graeco-Latin origin, whereas lorehouse would have required a considerable learning effort?

Plain English Awards – our blog posts

Plain bad language
According to the report, some tax forms are so badly worded that “unintentional errors” made by people filling them in result in around £300 million in underpaid tax each year.

Plain bad language – the winners
But before you run away with the idea that Plain English Campaign is solely about putting the boot in, they also recognize good practice. The Birmingham Mail received an award for being Best Regional Newspaper; the Forestry Commission’s pamphlet about Lyme disease won an Inside Write award, as did the Royal Navy for its magazine Navy News: “a good example of plain English written for an intended audience.”

Plain English Awards 2011
One of the recipients of a “Golden Bull Award” (for the year’s ‘best’ examples of gobbledygook) was the British Met Office. Their particular crime was to refer to ‘probabilities of precipitation’ rather than, say, ‘the chances of rain’.

Other pages

Romantic English
Sporting English
Metaphorical English

Business English

Green English
Small talk in English
Gender English
Online English
Subcultural English
Class English
International English

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  • Two suggestions on your plain English page, where you say:

    Welcome to our plain English page.

    During the month of December, we’ll be discussing the topic of plain English.

    On this page you will find a growing list of resources regarding this topic

    First, try just “During December” — “the month of” is redundant. Second, try “about” instead of “regarding” to improve the tone. Also, try just “we’ll discuss plain English” – it’s shorter and more direct. In other words, more in line with plain English.

  • Good point, John: if we’re criticizing others for not being ‘Plain’, it behoves us to set a good example (and maybe that includes not using words like ‘behove’).
    Our corpus data shows a strong preference for the simpler ‘During [month]’ over ‘During the month of …’ (with about 12,000 examples of the first and only 800 of the second) – so most speakers and writers instinctively opt for the simpler formulation. ‘Resources about’ and ‘resources on’ (more frequent) sound equally OK to me, and, I agree, preferable to ‘regarding’. Where I’d disagree is on the use of ‘we’ll be discussing’, which strikes me as more appropriate here (but I’d need to do some contrastive analysis on corpus data to see whether this hunch has any basis). But your Comment raises a really interesting question about what we mean by ‘Plain English’: the avoidance of gobbledegook is one thing, but stripping the message down to its bare essentials – effectively, a ‘utilitarian’ approach to language – may be another. What do you (and others) think?

  • Hi Michael: I like “behoves” — it adds color. And no need to strip to essentials (bare?). But if you have words that do nothing but add bulk, you end up with flabby writing. Every word should do something (convey meaning) more than just take up space. So “to” instead of “in order to”, for example. Or “a $50 cheque” instead of “a cheque in the amount of $50”. I think you can make a strong case for economic use of words as part of PL.

    Thanks for the interesting data.

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