Plain language

Plain language

__NOTOC__Plain language, also referred to as "simple language" or "clear language", is clear, modern, unpretentious language carefully written to ease understanding. It is a reaction to the alleged gobbledygook (aka Legal English) used by lawyers and others to impress or confuse rather than communicate. It distinguishes gobbledygook (example 1) from useful jargon employed as a shorthand among those who understand it (example 2).

Plain language is writing that is easy to read, understand and use. It allows a writer to reach a wider audience by using specific techniques for layout, design and writing text (see "before & after" examples).

*Clear and effective communication. (Professor Joseph Kimble)

*Generally speaking, the idiomatic and grammatical use of language that most effectively presents ideas to the reader. (Bryan Garner)

*Just ... clear, straightforward language, with the needs of the reader foremost in mind. (Michèle Asprey)

*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)

*Plain Language is a literary style that is easy-to-read because it matches the reading skill of the audience. (William DuBay)


Ever since ancient times, writers made the distinction between ornate and simple writing. According to Cicero, the plain style is best for instruction. A more elaborate style is proper for entertainment, and the most elegant style for use in formal speeches by attorneys and senators.

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 long before pointed out, that a well-turned metaphor or simile can help us see a relation we had not recognized. In fact, he makes abundant 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)

Cicero's teaching about style was to dominate writing until almost our own time. The most famous practitioners of Cicero's plain style included Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.

For three hundred years after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English was the language of the kitchen. By the end of that period, English had dropped its case endings of nouns, personal endings of verbs, and other complexities. Grammar was fixed by word order.

In the six centuries since that time, English has become the language of the greatest body of poetry ever written. Its great prose rivaled that of France. It developed a diversity of literary styles, some of them very ornate, others simple.

By the end of the 1500s, people whose only use of language was to communicate developed a straight-forward style that was free of ornament. It was the language used by merchants, artisans, seamen, and farmers. The more polished language was reserved for the upper and educated classes. Shakespeare was one of the first to parody this pretentious style. See the speeches of Dogberry in "Much Ado About Nothing". Making fun of people who use fancy language has been a stock device of comedy ever since.

By the end of the 19th century, scholars began studying the features of plain language. In 1893 a Professor of English Literature at the University of Nebraska, A. L. Sherman wrote, "Analytics of Literature: A manual for the objective study of English prose and poetry." In that work, Sherman showed that the 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.

In 1921, the publication of two 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 the principles of 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 an explosion of studies on how to make texts more readable for the average reader. 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 landmark study, "What Makes a Book Readable."

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. Among Bryson's students were Irving Lorge and Rudolf Flesch, who both became leaders in the plain-language movement.

Others who later led the research in plain language and readability included educator Edgar Dale 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. Research on what makes a text easy-to-read continues today.

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. This is not so surprising when you consider nearly a quarter of Americans do not graduate from high school. Drop-outs have an average 3rd-grade reading level. Large numbers graduate from high school reading at the 8th-grade level.

In the 1940s, Robert Gunning and Rudolf Flesch conducted extensive studies of what Americans read. They found that the most popular literature, magazines and pulp fiction, were written at the 7th-grade levels. Today, all popular novels such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Da Vinci Code" are written at the 7th-grade level. Gunning worked with the United Press and Flesch worked with the Associated Press. They were able to bring down the grade-level of the writing of those organizations from the 16th to the 11th-grade level, where most newspapers remain today.

Access to health information, educational and economic development opportunities, and government programs is often referred to in a social justice context. To ensure that more community members are able to access this information, many adult educators, writers of legal documents and social program developers include plain language principles when developing public documents. The end goal of plain language translation is to increase accessibility for those with lower literacy levels.

The movement toward accessibility of public documents is growing internationally [Asprey, M., (2003). Plain language around the world. Plain language for lawyers. The Federation Press. Retrieved September 23, 2008 from] and the plain-language movement has spread to many countries and many languages. There are readability formulas for at least 16 languages besides English, including Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

In North America, the plain language movement began in the 1970’s when First National City Bank (now Citibank ) launched the first plain language consumer loan documents. 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. [Asprey, M., (2003). Plain language around the world. Plain language for lawyers. The Federation Press. Retrieved September 23, 2008, from] 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 which 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.

On March 23, 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12044. It said that federal officials must see to it that each regulation is "written in plain English and understandable to those who must comply with it." In June 1998, President Bill Clinton issued a memorandum calling 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 (PLAN) to provide plain language training to government agencies.

In Canada, the plain language movement also began in the financial industry. In 1979, the Bank of Nova Scotia worked with a lawyer to rewrite and redesign loan forms. Royal Insurance of Canada also developed an insurance policy in plain language. In the late 1980’s, the Justice Reform Committee of British Columbia recommended establishing a committee to introduce plain language into the justice system.

Throughout the 1990’s, plain language continued to gain momentum in the financial industry and legal system, with plain language laws passed in Alberta and the Yukon. Governments in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia announced plain language programs, and several other provinces, including Manitoba, have either passed or drafted legislation requiring certain contracts to be written with plain language principles in mind.

Plain language principles have also been incorporated into the communications policy of the Canadian government that went into effect on August 1, 2006 [Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. (n.d.). Communications policy of the government of Canada. Retrieved September 23, 2008 from]

Plain language guidelines

Writing in plain language typically incorporates the following elements [Zvalo, P. (2003). Plain language writing: from a good idea emerges good public policy. Retrieved September 23, 2008 from] :

*Familiar words and a conversational, personal tone

*Logical presentation of information, with the most important ideas first, and linked from one paragraph to the next

*Action verbs and active construction, not passive

*Short words and sentences, where possible

*Short paragraphs

*Concrete examples to illustrate ideas or concepts

*Illustrations or diagrams to present ideas, if this makes them easier to understand

*Headings, point form, and boldface type to highlight main ideas and important information


Example 1 (involuntarily donated by an anonymous solicitor)

.. PROVIDED ALWAYS AND IT IS HEREBY AGREED AND DECLARED that the Lessor shall be entitled at its absolute discretion to vary the proportion of the Service Costs payable by the Lessee as defined in clause 1(n) in the event of rights being granted pursuant to the terms of paragraph 5 of the Fifth Schedule hereto Provided that such variation shall not result in the said Service Charge proportion being increased

Example 2 (from Lord Justice Scarman's judgment in Chase International Corporation v. Oliver (1978))

The plaintiff and the defendants are adjoining landowners. The plaintiff asserts that he has a right of way over the defendants’ land giving access from his land to the public highway. Without this access his land is in fact landlocked, but, for reasons which clearly appear from the narration of the facts already given by my Lords, the plaintiff cannot claim a right of way by necessity. The plaintiff has no grant. He has the benefit of no enforceable contract. He has no prescriptive right. His case has to be that the defendants are estopped by their conduct from denying him a right of access over their land to the public highway. If the plaintiff has any right, it is an equity arising out of the conduct and relationship of the parties. In such a case I think it is now well settled law that the court, having analysed and assessed the conduct and relationship of the parties, has to answer three questions. First, is there an equity established? Secondly, what is the extent of the equity, if one is established? And, thirdly, what is the relief appropriate to satisfy the equity?

"Before & after"


Title I of the CARE Act creates a program of formula and supplemental competitive grants to help metropolitan areas with 2,000 or more reported AIDS cases meet emergency care needs of low-income HIV patients. Title II of the Ryan White Act provides formula grants to States and territories for operation of HIV service consortia in the localities most affected bu the epidemic, provision of home and community -based care, continuation of insurance coverage for persons with HIV infection, and treatments that prolong life and prevent serious deterioration of health. Up to 10 percent of the funds for this program can be used to support Special Projects of National Significance.


Low income people living with HIV/AIDS gain, literally, years, through the advanced drug treatments and ongoing care supported by HRSA’s Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act [The Plain Language Action & Information Network. (2008). Assuring Access to Essential Health Care. Retrieved September 23, 2008, from]

ee also

*Plain English
*Plain Language Movement


External links

* [ Clarity (the lawyers' movement for plain legal language)]
* [ The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN)]
* [ Plain language and legislation booklet: Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Counsel]
* []
* [ Clarity Rating Calculator]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • plain language — noun accepted language, clear language, cogent writing, concise writing, conventional language, correct English, exact writing, plain English, plain speaking, plain speech, precise expression, precise writing, specific writing, unambiguous… …   Law dictionary

  • plain language — noun : language unconcealed by any cryptographic process * * * plain language noun Straightforward, understandable language • • • Main Entry: ↑plain * * * plain English/language/wording/ …   Useful english dictionary

  • Plain Language Movement — The Plain Language Movement is an effort to eliminate overly complex language from academia, government, law, and business. The two international organizations in the movement are * Plain Language Association International, (PLAIN), formerly the… …   Wikipedia

  • put it in plain language — say in simple words, express simply …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Plain English — (sometimes referred to more broadly as plain language) is a communication style that focuses on considering the audience s needs when writing. It recommends avoiding unnecessary words and avoiding jargon, technical terms, and long and ambiguous… …   Wikipedia

  • Language movement — may imply any of the following:;Language specific social/political movements: *The Bengali Language Movement, which is commemorated by the International Mother Language Day declared by UNESCO and Language Movement Day in Bangladesh *The Urdu… …   Wikipedia

  • plain English — index plain language Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • plain speaking — index plain language Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • plain speech — index plain language Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • plain words — index plain language Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”