When plain is not boring: defining plain English

plain-jane by Jason Silkey
In How to Look at a Painting, Justin Paton writes plain English that's lively and original and fresh and surprising. And no, that is not a contradiction in terms.

Plain English (or plain language) has at least two meanings. It means clear, as in plain as the nose on your face. And it means simple and straightforward, not frilly or fancy. But it has never meant ugly or boring or constrained.

There's another animal called Basic English, invented in 1930 by Charles Ogden in a misguided attempt to make English a universal language. Ogden simplified the grammar rules of English and created a core list of 850 words. Any document should have a maximum of 1000 words, allowing for 150 specialised words. Now that's boring. Basic English is boring English, by definition. Worse, it doesn't make things easier for those learning English as a second language, because the basic words have many meanings. Try looking up the word get in a decent-sized dictionary. Then look up obtain. A longer word is often simpler, because it has fewer meanings.

Recently Professor Holmes wrote about the dangers of restricting vocabulary and banning words. I couldn't agree more, and yet it's not uncommon for people to assume plain English is about banning complicated or specialist language. In fact,

a plain English document is one that the intended reader can easily read, understand and use.

Key words: intended reader. Doctors, linguists, accountants, plumbers and cricketers all use in-words specific to their area of expertise. No problem.

Here's Justin Paton on the subject:

But let's be clear and draw a line between jargon and terminology. If an art writer keeps slinging mushy verbs such as 'problematise' at you, you have a right — and perhaps a duty — to start slinging something back. Such words aren't there to illuminate an experience or bring you nearer an object. They're intended to lend a glint of wished-for rigour to the prose, and to flash friendship signals at other problematisers. That's jargon. If, on the other hand, you quiver with indignation at the words 'impasto' and 'assemblage', I hope you don't mind my saying but you need to get out more. Complaining about such words is like complaining about 'carburettor' or 'chardonnay'. They're simply terminology.

Go Justin!

Plain Jane image: JasonSilkey.com


Dec 09, 2011 • Posted by Jason Silkey

Ha! Glad you liked my picture enough to use it, but my name is Jason, not Justin. My site is JasonSilkey.com.

Dec 09, 2011 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Jason! What a bad mistake I made two years ago. I’m so glad you finally spotted it. Justin … Jason … no excuse. Abject apologies and thank you for your perfect illustration.

Leave a comment: