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Keep calm, and say it plainly

Ever since I first read an ancient edition of Ernest Gowers’ book on plain English about fifteen years ago, I’ve tried to put his guidelines into practice whenever I write. I don’t always get it right – I’m sure you’ll catch me out in this piece of writing – but I always try.

What is plain English, and why should you use it?

Simply put, plain language is language that’s easy for the reader to understand. These two quotes from authorities in the field explain it better than I can:

‘Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer’s job is to make the reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely.’ – Sir Ernest Gowers in The Complete Plain Words (1954).

 ‘Plain English refers to the writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.’ – Martin Cutts in Oxford Guide to Plain English (2004).

With these definitions in mind, the second part of the question (WHY plain English?) is perhaps already answered. When you write something, you usually want the person who reads it to understand it perfectly. There are exceptions, but we’ll look at these in another post.

When should you use plain English?

It’s nearly always important to get your meaning across clearly, but sometimes it’s vital (that is, ‘essential, absolutely necessary’), such as when you write instructions that could lead to damage, injury, death, financial loss, and so on, if your reader is unable to understand you.

Somewhat less dramatically, if you want your reader to do what you tell them to do (or feel the way you want them to feel) when they read what you’ve written, you should use plain language.

Some rules for writing plain English

I like the six rules that George Orwell set out for writing English in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946). I’ve quoted Orwell’s rules below, with some of my own notes and further information for each.

 1.       Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Avoiding stilted writing of this kind can be difficult, but if you succeed it will keep your writing fresh, and force you to think more carefully about what you’re trying to say – which is usually a good thing.

You can read our blog post on avoiding clichés for further help with this.

 2.       Never use a long word where a short one will do.

On my regular bus to and from Oxford, there’s a row of fold-up seats near the front. On the bottom of each seat, a notice reads ‘PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS SEAT WILL FOLD UP AUTOMATICALLY WHEN VACATED’. While this isn’t the worst example of unnecessarily long or unfamiliar words used in public notices that I’ve seen, the last word always jars my plain-English senses. ‘When vacated’ here is an offical-sounding way of saying ‘when you get up’. This is important to understand if you’re planning to get up to press the bell … and sit back down. ‘When vacated’ also breaks rule 4 below – it doesn’t say who does the ‘vacating’.

I’d want to reword the notice as something like:

Be careful! When you get up, this seat will fold up automatically.

I don’t object to the longer word ‘automatically’ in this sentence. The writer could have used ‘by itself’, but ‘automatic’ is a fairly common word (also used for ‘automatic doors’, and so on).

3.       If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

This rule is about cutting out verbiage. You can find examples and guidance on the subject of avoiding redundant expressions on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

4.       Never use the passive where you can use the active.

This could be a blog post in itself, but for now, these are the basics:

An active verb has a subject which is performing the action of the verb, for example:

The teenagers fixed the fence.

[‘Fixed’ is the verb. ‘The teenagers’ are the subject – they were doing the fixing. Good for them!]

A passive verb has a subject which is undergoing the action of the verb, rather than carrying it out, for example:

The fence was fixed.

[…but we don’t know who did it. The fence didn’t do anything. It just stood there, passively, being a fence, while being fixed by a hidden hand.]

Martin Cutts amends Orwell’s rule to ‘Prefer the active voice unless there’s a good reason for using the passive’, and devotes a short, very useful chapter to this in the Oxford Guide to Plain English.

In short, if you know who the ‘do-er’ or subject in the sentence is, it’s better to name this person or thing and rewrite the sentence in the active voice (in other words, make the ‘do-er’ the subject of the sentence). So rather than saying:

These mistakes should be rectified at your soonest convenience.

You could perhaps say:

You should correct these mistakes as soon as you can.

You’ll notice I’ve also changed ‘rectified’ and ‘at your soonest convenience’. The first is, to my ear, a less familiar and therefore less readily understood word for ‘correct’ or even ‘fix’. The second, ‘at your soonest convenience’ is one of those stale, wordy phrases that have lost their flavour, and should be stamped out if you spot them.

5.       Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Jargon, by definition, is the opposite of plain English. Jargon is ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand’. This post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog looks at some of the worst examples of corporate jargon.

It’s important to avoid jargon when you’re talking to people outside of your field, or writing documents or instructions for public use. Of course, it can sometimes be appropriate to use less-than-plain language in your work or studies. For example, if you’re writing an article on a scientific topic for a journal, you can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid using longer words and phrases that aren’t familiar to everybody. If you’re a Marketing Executive and you’re writing a report for your Marketing Manager, you could probably use terms and phrases that are specific to your department or specialism, safe in the knowledge that your reader will understand the meaning you want to get across. You can write ‘devise strategies to drive institutional subscription usage’ as shorthand for ‘come up with a few different ways to help librarians to encourage their patrons to use the online services that the libraries have paid for more frequently’.

However, if you are going to use this kind of language, make sure you know the meaning of any specialist terms, long words, or jargon you use, and use these correctly, and as sparingly as you can.

6.       Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It’s been some time since I read the whole essay, but I think this is Orwell’s way of saying that common sense should always have a place in your writing!

If you want to improve your English, these rules could be a good starting point; but more recent and more detailed rules and guidelines for writing plain English are also available, including the Oxford Guide to Plain English.

For me, the golden rule is: think about your readers, and don’t make them work too hard. When you follow that rule, you will find yourself striving to get your meaning across effectively, and doing the hard work of writing plainly yourself, rather than risk confusing your readers.