Plain language  

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Plain language is clear, succinct writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly and completely as possible. Plain language strives to be easy to read, understand, and use. It avoids verbose, convoluted language and jargon. In many countries, laws mandate that public agencies use plain language to increase access to programs and services. Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities define the plain language to be included as one of languages.



Most literacy and communications scholars agree that plain language means:

  • "Clear and effective communication" (Joseph Kimble)
  • "The idiomatic and grammatical use of language that most effectively presents ideas to the reader" (Bryan Garner)
  • "Clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of ... language." (Dr Robert Eagleson)
  • "A literary style that is easy-to-read because it matches the reading skill of the audience" (William DuBay)
  • "Language that is clear, concise and correct" (Richard Wydick)


Early history

Cicero argued, “When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men's minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.” Cicero writes that the plain style is not easy. While it may seem close to everyday speech, achieving the effect in formal discourse is a high and difficult art: "Plainness of style seems easy to imitate at first thought, but when attempted, nothing is more difficult."

Plainness does not mean the absence of all ornaments, only the more obvious ones. Cicero recognizes what Aristotle had already pointed out, that a well-turned metaphor or simile can help us see a relation we had not recognized. In fact, he makes use of metaphor and simile to teach us what the plain style is all about:

... although it is not full-blooded, it should nevertheless have some of the sap of life so that, though it lack great strength, it may be, so to speak, in sound health.... Just as some women are said to be handsomer when unadorned... so this plain style gives pleasure when unembellished.... All noticeable pearls, as it were, will be excluded. Not even curling irons will be used. All cosmetics, artificial white and red, will be rejected. Only elegance and neatness will remain. (The Orator, xxiii, 76-79)

Shakespeare parodied the pretentious style, as in the speeches of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. The plain, or native style was, in fact, an entire literary tradition during the English Renaissance, from Skelton through Ben Jonson and including such poets as Barnabe Googe, George Gascoyne, Walter Raleigh, and perhaps the later work of Fulke Greville. In addition to its purely linguistic plainness, the Plain Style employed an emphatic, pre-Petrarchan prosody (each syllable either clearly stressed or clearly unstressed).

19th century

By the end of the 19th century, scholars began to study the features of plain language. A. L. Sherman, a professor of English literature at the University of Nebraska, wrote Analytics of Literature: A Manual for the Objective Study of English Prose and Poetry in 1893. In this work, Sherman showed that the typical English sentence has shortened over time and that spoken English is a pattern for written English.

Sherman wrote:
Literary English, in short, will follow the forms of the standard spoken English from which it comes. No man should talk worse than he writes, no man writes better than he should talk.... The oral sentence is clearest because it is the product of millions of daily efforts to be clear and strong. It represents the work of the race for thousands of years in perfecting an effective instrument of communication.

1900 to 1950

Two 1921 works, Harry Kitson's "The Mind of the Buyer," and Edward L. Thorndike's "The Teacher's Word Book" picked up where Sherman left off. Kitson's work was the first to apply empirical psychology to advertising. He advised the use of short words and sentences. Thorndike's work contained the frequency ratings of 10,000 words. He recommended using the ratings in his book to grade books not only for students in schools but also for average readers and adults learning English. Thorndike wrote:

It is commonly assumed that children and adults prefer trashy stories in large measure because they are more exciting and more stimulating in respect to sex. There is, however, reason to believe that greater ease of reading in respect to vocabulary, construction, and facts, is a very important cause of preference. A count of the vocabulary of "best sellers" and a summary of it in terms of our list would thus be very instructive.

The 1930s saw many studies on how to make texts more readable. In 1931, Douglas Tyler and Ralph Waples published the results of their two-year study, "What People Want to Read About." In 1934, Ralph Ojemann, Edgar Dale, and Ralph Waples published two studies on writing for adults with limited reading ability. In 1935, educational psychologist William S. Gray teamed up with Bernice Leary to publish their study, "What Makes a Book Readable."

George Orwell’s 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" decried the pretentious diction, meaninglessness, vagueness, and worn-out idioms of political jargon. In 1979, the Plain English Campaign was founded in London to combat "gobbledegook, jargon and legalese".

1951 to 2000

Lyman Bryson at Teachers College in Columbia University led efforts to supply average readers with more books of substance dealing with science and current events. Bryson's students include Irving Lorge and Rudolf Flesch, who became leaders in the plain-language movement. In 1975, Flesch collaborated with J. Peter Kincaid to create the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which uses an algorithm to produce grade level scores that predict the level of education required to read the selected text. The instrument looks at word length (number of letters) and sentence length (number of words) and produces a score sd of Ohio State, Jeanne S. Chall of the Reading Laboratory of Harvard, and George R. Klare of Ohio University. Their efforts spurred the publication of over 200 readability formulas and 1,000 published studies on readability.

Beginning in 1935, a series of literacy surveys showed that the average reader in the U.S. was an adult of limited reading ability. Today, the average adult in the U.S. reads at the 9th-grade level.

Access to health information, educational and economic development opportunities, and government programs is often referred to in a social justice context. To ensure more community members can access this information, many adult educators, legal writers, and social program developers use plain language principles when they develop public documentsTemplate:Citation needed. The goal of plain language translation is to increase accessibility for those with lower literacy levels.

In the United States, movement towards Plain English began in the 1940s through the pen of Stuart Chase. In 1953, Chase wrote The Power of Words, in which he complained about gobbledygook and legalese in English semantics, with an emphasis on political and legal discourse.

In North American industry, the plain language movement began in the 1970s when First National City Bank (now Citibank ) launched the first plain language consumer loan documentsTemplate:Citation needed. Concerned about the large number of suits against its customers to collect bad debts, the bank voluntarily made the decision to implement plain language policies in 1973. That same decade, the consumer-rights movement won legislation that required plain language in contracts, insurance policies, and government regulations. American law schools began requiring students to take legal writing classes that encouraged them to use plain English as much as possible and to avoid legal jargon, except when absolutely necessary. Public outrage with the skyrocketing number of unreadable government forms led to the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980.

In 1972, the Plain Language Movement received practical political application, when President Richard Nixon decreed that the “Federal Register be written in layman’s terms.” On March 23, 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12044, which said that federal officials must see that each regulation is "written in plain English and understandable to those who must comply with it." President Ronald Reagan rescinded these orders in 1981, but many political agencies continued to follow them. By 1991, eight states had also passed legislation related to plain language. Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) was formed in 1993 as the Plain Language Network. Its membership is international; it was incorporated as a non-profit organization in Canada in 2008.

In June 1998, President Bill Clinton issued a memorandum that called for executive departments and agencies to use plain language in all government documents. Vice President Al Gore subsequently spearheaded a plain language initiative that formed a group called the Plain Language Action Network (PLAIN) to provide plain language training to government agencies.

See also

Opposites of Plain language

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