Words to the Wise
Let's Be Plain
About Plain Language
readers, and—sadly—educators hold misconceptions about plain
language: for example, it is aimed at people who can't read
well; it is about dumbing down; it is dull. None of this is
true. On the contrary, plain language is about communicating
clearly and persuasively, about recognizing your readers' needs,
and above all about writing to your readers.
Language Association International, quoting the International Plain Language Federation, says it best: "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." This means keeping
your reader in mind as you write and working hard to achieve
clarity, good organization, and an inviting presentation.
We have all received incomprehensible
letters, notices, instruction sheets, even advertising, and have
faced forms that try our patience. As we grit our teeth we
wonder why the people who turn out this stuff insist on wasting
our time. The problem for writers is that the style of writing
that produces this bafflegab has crept into everyday speech and
become entrenched, to the point where the best intentioned among
us are letting it slip into our creative writing. Instead of the
clear and rhythmic, we use the obtuse and clunky (facilitate
rather than help). We clog our sentences with little
qualifiers (the traveller was a bit confused
rather than the traveller was confused, poor guy!)
and tiny words (in view of the fact
that rather than because). We change verbs into nouns
(the requirement of the role is that rather than the
job requires). We kill the action with the passive voice (the
train was missed by Joe rather than Joe missed the train).
We deaden our argument with unnecessary preambles (I would
Through diligent editing we can
eradicate these habits that suck the life out of our writing.
This, too, is what plain language is about—its principles will
help you improve all your writing.
Plain Language Association International:
Don Watson, Death Sentences:
How Clichés, Weasel Words, and Management-Speak Are Strangling
Public Language. Toronto: Penguin, 2003.
Back to Words
to the Wise index