Plain English good. Basic English diabolical.

John Smith wrote to me. I wrote back. Now that's plain English on purpose, and it is probably also Basic English by accident.



I have discovered that words promoted by the Plain English movement frequently result in the loss of history and culture, meaning, clarity, and conciseness. For example: combine becomes mix; compile becomes ‘make’ or ‘collect’; consult becomes ‘talk to’, meet, or ask (The Plain English Campaign, 2001). These are not accurate meanings of the words. Correct becomes ‘put right’; and cumulative becomes ‘added up’ or ‘added together’. These examples demonstrates lost conciseness.

Before long we will be speaking in grunts.

The A-Z of alternative words, Plain English Campaign. (2001). (PDF, 177KB)
Retrieved 6 September, 2012, from

John Smith

P.S. By the way, I actually despise some forms of non-plain English, especially legalese.

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Hi John

Thanks for contacting me.

I think some people confuse plain (= clear and precise) English with Basic (= minimal, often informal) English. Basic English commits exactly the sins you describe.

I am not a fan of Basic English, which advocates a vocabulary of 850 words. In my opinion this restricted vocabulary inevitably creates confusion—so I agree with you.

Basic English: seemed like a good idea at the time?

The Plain English Campaign A–Z of Alternative Words is an enlightening and useful resource, but of course you need to use your discretion when deciding which words to simplify, and how. Context matters!

English glories in idiomatic phrases. English can juggle a few hundred very short multi-purpose words to create thousands of meanings. Paradoxically, those miniwords in phrases are probably the most difficult words for non-native English speakers to use correctly or to understand.

Go on? Get on? Get along? Go over? Go on in? Get to that? Give me a break!

Two-syllable words are likely to have a more precise meaning than the basic words you itemise. For people who use English as an additional language or a foreign language, phrasal verbs such as 'add up' or 'talk to' are notoriously confusing. Entire bilingual dictionaries are dedicated to phrasal verbs, and the problems can often be avoided by using a longer, one-word verb. Example: 'construct' instead of 'put up'.

We all want the same thing: clarity and conciseness. But we follow different paths.

Yours sincerely


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Sep 14, 2012 • Posted by Caroline Jarrett


Interesting points.

I’d also like to mention that ‘John Smith’ seems to have confused The Plain English Campaign, a commercial UK plain language consultancy, with the Plain Language movement, a world-wide loose coalition of a wide variety of different public and private organisations that together promote the use of straightfoward, purposeful language.

Sep 14, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Easy to do, Caroline! But of course we like people who articulate their views on plain English and plain language to us, so we can clarify such points.

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