Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video What is plain English?, part of Writing in Plain English.
- So I stand on the street corner or at the mall and ask 50 people if they know what "ROFL" means. 45 say it means "rolling on floor laughing", four say "running on four legs", and one says "riding on flying llamas". Okay, 90% know the most common meaning, so does that mean "ROFL" is plain English? Or I explain that, "We're going forward with our plans to implement responsive transitional projections," and get 40 responses of "really", six "that's nice", and four "what?".
Those responses, "really" and "that's nice", would indicate 92% seem to understand, or at least don't ask for futher clarification. So that's plain English? Unfortunately, understanding what plain English is isn't as easy as asking 50 people if they understand a word or an idea. I like this definition. Plain English is a style of writing in which the language, structure, and presentation of a document all work together to help the reader.
A document written in plain English is easy to read, understand, and act upon after just one reading. Or here's another definition: communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Written material is in plain English if your audience can find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they find to meet their needs. No one technique defines plain English. Rather, plain language is defined by results.
It's easy to read, understand, and use. And yet another definition of plain English: Writing in plain English means using basic, commonly used words; choosing short words over long words where possible; avoiding industry jargon or slang terms; using short, concise sentences. And the last one. Here's how the government defines plain English in public law 111 274: "An act to enchance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly." This act may be cited as the Plain Writing Act of 2010.
Okay, so the government may not be typically known for using plain English, but the word "clear" is important. Let's look at an overview of commonalities from these definitions. Specific examples of each are discussed in other lessons. Style of writing. Style is a subjective term in writing. Comments made about style may be "think about word choice", "tighten the wording" or "wordy", "avoid cliches", "be careful of acronyms", "don't overuse prepositions or superlatives", "too passive", "convoluted wording", "not clear".
So one of the components of plain English is to use basic, commonly used, and understood words, not jargon and slang terms or multisyllabic words just to impress the reader. Another component is to use the fewest number of words necessary, to avoid redundancies and run-on writing. Fewer words the reader has to read and understand. Then, if the fewest number of words are used, the sentence will be short and concise, another building block of plain English.
Around 20 words is considered an average sentence length. There are certainly times to use more complex and compound sentences, but those times should be chosen for a specific purpose. Another element is presentation. How is the information arranged? How does it look? A clear topic sentence, readable paragraphs (six to eight lines on average), internal headings, or maybe bulleted lists. When a reader views the document, is the reaction positive? "I can read this quickly" is a positive response, or is the negative reaction "how long will it take me to wade through this", or, even worse, "I don't have the time to read this".
Understanding what plain English means is necessary before we try to be sure our language and general writing style are plain. Even though plain may vary person by person or industry by industry, general requirements are standard. Clear, easy to read and comprehend, and short. Those requirements seem plain enough.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
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- Understanding plain English
- Catching mistakes by reading aloud
- Simplifying sentences
- Using strong verbs and meaningful words
- Avoiding corporate jargon
- Finding the right voice and tone
- Editing flow and content
- Writing in a conversational style