Don’t talk about plain language at work

Not plain language: words in a tangle

The phrase plain language (or plain English) is not plain language. The meaning of this phrase is masked and mysterious, known only to editors, content strategists, technical writers and other specialists.

In this world (cliché alert) there are two kinds of people: the vast majority who interpret the phrase plain language literally, and a minority of experts who know the technical meaning.

That fact alone shows that the phrase isn’t clear. It’s jargon, incomprehensible to outsiders.

The words are very simple and there are only two of them: plain and language. So surely the meaning should be obvious. But hang on a minute: is it? No way!

It’s not their fault

Does plain language just mean simple words and short simple sentences, as the general public believes? You can’t blame them, because that’s the literal meaning.

One principle of plain language is that if your intended reader does not understand a document, it’s the writer’s fault, not the reader’s fault.

The concept of plain language has always been much broader and more useful than just fixing words and sentences.

Traditional plain language requires much more than clear, concise, correct language. It also relates to a document’s purpose, structure and page design. On paper, if all those factors are satisfactory, then the message probably gets through to the intended reader.

Does your business need clear writing? Does it what!

Classical plain language is an immensely valuable goal for every business except poetry. Whether digital or analogue, clear writing is a massive improvement on wordy, confusing, disorganised writing.

Imagine if everyone in your team wrote clearly. Imagine the savings in time, money, customer relations and staff morale. (Answer: heaps. It's been documented.)

Clear writing is not instinctive: it has to be learned. Good news! It can be learned, and the world is full of teachers and courses. (Ahem. For example, Contented?)

Go for it! Lead the charge! If not you, who?

Don’t talk about plain language at work

But when you decide to campaign for plain language within your organisation, best call it something else. This will save you many exasperating, pointless, embarrassing, unwinnable battles trying to explain that plain language actually doesn’t mean plain language but plain language plus a whole lot of other things.

How about campaigning for clear writing or clear communication instead?

Start here: Certificate in Business Writing. Big savings for groups.


Sep 09, 2014 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Yes — too bad group 2 is noisier than group 1!

Sep 05, 2014 • Posted by Cheryl

I think there are 3 kinds of people:
1. the vast majority who say Yes! and want it in the materials they read
2. the nitpickers and naysayers who think the label “plain language” is confusing
3. the experts who know how to produce it

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