If you follow me on social media, then you know I’m a plain language advocate. But what does that mean?
In short, plain language (or “plain English” in the UK) is writing that’s “clear enough to be easily understood,” according to Martin Cutts, author of one of my favorite resources on plain language.
The Plain Language Association International offers a similar definition: “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
You may want to check out the short video Editors Canada put together, “What Is Plain Language?”
Ok, you say, but why does plain language matter? Don’t different people have different writing styles? Wouldn’t writing in “plain language” make for boring writing?
I’m glad you asked.
It’s the Law
Well, kind of. Using plain language principles is the law and there are actually Federal Plain Language Guidelines in the U.S., but no, you won’t be taken to court if you don’t follow them in your next blog post or novel or office memo. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 applies to federal agencies and government communication (the irony is not lost on me that the Act itself is written in traditional legalese). Why, though?
Plain language is an issue of access. The motivations behind writing to be understood are different from those of writing to “sound smart.” Unfortunately, many of us were trained in school to write in a way that “sounds smart” and to be understood by a readership of one highly educated teacher or professor.
Here’s an example of such language use. On Gilmore Girls—a show known for its high verbal skills—Rory Gilmore receives a Compact Oxford English Dictionary from her dad. She then promptly shows off her learnedness by asking her parents to “attenuate the cacophony”—or, in plain English, to turn down their loud music. If I wanted to impress you, I could’ve said Rory is being sesquipedalian, or how overusing sesquipedalian words is not aligned with the practice of plain language.
See? If you didn’t know the word sesquipedalian, you probably stopped reading and looked it up—or maybe you kept reading but probably felt excluded from this conversation. If you did know the word, that’s cool too! Just remember that not everyone will know such sesquipedalian words, like sesquipedalian, which will affect readers’ experiences if you do choose to use them.
Simple Is Not Easy
Note: Plain language writing is not the same as easy writing. It often takes more time and effort to follow the principles of plain language. If you need help converting your writing into plain language or would like a plain-language assessment of your writing, let me know. It’s one of my favorite services to provide!