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Plain English writing

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By Colin Ramsden, April 2006.


This document did not win any awards,
but this logo is an example of the
serious business of plain English writing.

According to the Macquarie dictionary, plain English is defined as: "written or spoken English which attempts to eliminate jargon and technical terms, and to simplify structure, syntax, etc., in order to make a document or communication more accessible to the general public."

Plain English makes for more effective written communication. Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another. The test of good writing is whether it conveys to its readers exactly what is intended to be conveyed. The measure of effectiveness is whether the readers properly understood the written meaning both readily and precisely.

If the reader stopped reading to look up a definition in a dictionary, the message was too complicated, and used language or words which were inappropriate for the reader. If the reader was left wondering what the writing meant after having read it through, the writing was inappropriate for the reader. If the reader was able to misunderstand the writing, or take a different meaning than that which was intended by the writer, then the writing was ineffective and inappropriate for the reader.

Writing using plain language is not a new concept. For example, Mark Twain's nineteenth century 'Rules of Writing' include "the writer should eschew obfuscation", meaning avoid and shun confusion and obscurity in your writing.

According to the Australian Government Printing Service (AGPS) 'Style Manual' (6th Ed. 2002), the 'plain English' movement began in the 1970's, however, Sir Ernest Gower's 'The Complete Plain Words' was published by the British Government's 'Her Majesty's Stationary Office' way back in 1953, from source published even earlier in 1948 (Plain Words) and 1951 (The ABC of Plain Words).

Plain English has been bandied about by bureaucrats and subsequently been enshrined into law in many jurisdictions. Its use has been subsequently adopted by private industry, as evidenced by many insurance companies in their policy wording.

Plain English, also known as plain writing, was intended as a means for officials and public servant's—which use written English as a tool of their trade—to provide plain meaning in their communication with plain people. One such definition of 'plain meaning' is given in a US judgement issued in 1993 as below:

"This court utilizes a standard of interpretation for insurance policies which declares that the words used are given the plain meaning that a reasonable person, in the position of the insured, understands them to mean. Ambiguity exists when language is capable of more than one reasonable interpretation using the plain meaning of words so that a reasonable person, in the position of the insured understands them; contract read as a whole; extrinsic evidence may not be admitted to contradict plain meaning."
- [Worthington v. State, 598 P.2d 796, 806 (Wyo. 1979); Doctors Co. v. Ins. Corp. of America, 864 P.2d 1018 (Wyo. 1993)].

According to the AGPS 'Style Manual', some of the principles of plain English writing involve:

Many technical writers utilise plain English writing where appropriate as a general-purpose strategy for improving communication with the readers of their writing. Professional technical writers know when and where to make best use of the writing skills available to them. Plain English writing is one such skill.


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The plain English industry

Plain English has become an industry in its own right. There are several organisations which promote plain English as their core competency. For example, 'Plain English Writing' is a US based professional writing service which declares that: "Using plain English builds trust with your readers. And if that's not enough of a reason, it also can help cut costs, save jobs, and avoid wasted time."

According to the 'Plain English Foundation', plain English helps to:

They also list 10 tips for good plain English writing:

  1. Be aware of your readers and always put their needs first.
  2. Make your core message prominent.
  3. Use top-heavy document structures that foreground your key material.
  4. Use a layout that readers can follow easily.
  5. Listen carefully to the tone of your writing.
  6. Use the simplest word possible for each concept.
  7. Eliminate clutter.
  8. Write in the active voice.
  9. Use short sentences with one idea per sentence.
  10. Get your punctuation right.

According to the 'Plain English Campaign', plain English is a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone, that is clear and concise. The main advantages of plain English are:

The UK based 'Plain Language Commission' claims to be independent of government, and offers accreditations for public documents and websites, high quality writing skills courses, and editing services. See an example of their accreditation logo at the top of this article.

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The Calvin and Hobbes cartoon parodies plain writing:

With gratitude to Bill Watterson: http://www.calvinandhobbes.com/

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Mark Twains Rules of Writing

 (adapted from his essay on 'The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper')
  1. A story shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The parts of a story shall be necessary parts of the story and shall help develop it.
  3. The people in the story (characters) shall be alive, except in the case of the corpses, and the reader should be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  4. The people in the story, both dead and alive, shall show a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. The talk in a story (dialogue) shall sound like human talk such as a human being would be likely to speak in the given circumstances, should be interesting to the reader, should help out the story, and should stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
  6. When the author describes a character in his story, the conduct and conversation of that person shall justify the description.
  7. When a character talks in an educated or knowing manner in the beginning of a paragraph, they shall not talk like an uneducated or unknowing person at the end of it.
  8. The author and characters shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone—or if they must venture a miracle, the author must make it look possible and reasonable.
  9. The author should make the reader feel a deep interest in the characters of the story; they should be real enough that the reader will love the good ones and hate the bad ones.
  10. The characters shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

The author should

  1. say what he wants to say—not merely come near it.
  2. use the right word—not its second cousin.
  3. avoid a surplus of words.
  4. eschew obfuscation. (See note below.)
  5. not leave out necessary details.
  6. avoid laziness in writing style.
  7. use good grammar.
  8. employ a simple, straightforward style.

Note Note

Other interpretations of his essay on 'The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper' quote him as saying "eschew surplusage" which has a different meaning altogether. Certainly, Cooper uses the word "eschew" (along with much surplus and confusion) in his book 'The Last of the Mohicans', making it worthy of Twain's sarcastic use of the same word in his 'writing rule' which admonishes it.

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See Also

Jump across to separate topic Writing Rules Jump across to separate topic Technical Writing Jump across to separate topic Effective Communication | Jump across to separate topic Effective Managers |
Jump to site home page Lotech Solutions' Tips, Tricks, and Procedures

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