Plain English is hard to define but we recognise its absence when we see gobbledygook. James Elliott looks at what the Plain English Awards are all about.

It’s challenging to write in plain English. It’s even more challenging to write about writing in plain English. Have I confused you already? Could I have written this introduction more plainly? What am I even trying to say? And why am I asking you, the reader, these questions?

Less is best when it comes to writing

I’m going to start again by going back in time to 1871, when American writer Mark Twain wrote in a letter “I apologise for such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one”.

In fact, this quote has been attributed to a number of other people, from Cicero to Benjamin Franklin. And that’s probably because they all expressed a similar sentiment. For example, about 300 years before Mark Twain’s letter the German theologian Martin Luther wrote, “If I had my time to go over again I would make my sermons much shorter, for I am conscious they have been too wordy”.  

There’s a truth here – that it takes time and thought to write plainly, and that doing so generally means using a small number of carefully chosen words. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, we currently have about 171,000 words available to use in the English language. This time next year, that number will have grown to about 172,500. So we have more than enough English words to choose from to convey any thought, idea or instruction. However, the average adult with English as a first language has a vocabulary of only 20,000 to 30,000 words. This means the available word pool that plain language practitioners can scoop from is a fraction of the total number of words available.     

So what do we mean by plain English?

A quote from US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is helpful here. He said, more or less, “I can’t define pornography but I recognise it when I see it”. That applies to plain English but with an inversion: plain English is hard to define but we recognise its absence when we see, well, gobbledygook. The best example of plain English is a grouping of words that almost passes us by unnoticed because it doesn’t require a second thought or consideration. We understood what it meant the first time around.

Celebrating the communicators who’re making a difference

I’m proud to support the Plain English Awards. The Awards recognise those wordsmiths who do their best to ensure that you understand documents like your car insurance policy, the warranty for your mobile phone, and the terms and conditions from your mobile service provider. Most people, myself included, often buy products or enter into contracts to receive services without reading, much less understanding, the terms and conditions in the fine print. But when we do need to look at the fine print, we need to be able to understand it.            

And in the last year in particular, we’ve needed to understand what social distancing means, what lockdown alert levels are, and how to go about getting a Covid vaccine. This has been an enormous challenge for plain English practitioners! They’ve had to convince us that we need to comply with the behaviour required of us. And they’ve had to do this through plain English expressions of what we must and mustn’t do.

Entries for the Plain English Awards open in June. Find out the latest about when and how to enter this year’s awards here

You’re encouraged to submit those examples of plain language that you do like, and also examples of gobbledygook that you don’t. I look forward to seeing which entries make the finals!                                                      

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