Plain English or Just Plain?

The Plain English movement has been around in earnest since the 1970s, some say even earlier. It advocates writing in a clear, nontechnical style, free of jargon and long-windedness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Plain English turns this:

NO PERSON HAS BEEN AUTHORIZED TO GIVE ANY INFORMATION OR MAKE ANY REPRESENTATION OTHER THAN THOSE CONTAINED OR INCORPORATED BY REFERENCE IN THIS JOINT PROXY STATEMENT/PROSPECTUS, AND, IF GIVEN OR MADE, SUCH INFORMATION OR REPRESENTATION MUST NOT BE RELIED UPON AS HAVING BEEN AUTHORIZED.

Into this:

You should rely only on the information contained in this document or that we have referred you to. We have not authorized anyone to provide you with information that is different.

*Example from A Plain English Handbook: How to Write Clear SEC Disclosure Documents.


What I don’t think Plain English means, though, is that everything you write needs to be, well, plain. Certainly, what you’re writing and for whom should dictate the tone and your word choice: An instruction manual, a complaint letter, a company newsletter story, and an article for a business journal have different requirements. At all times, your writing should be clear and easy for the reader to follow. That doesn’t mean it has to be plain.

You can write clearly without sacrificing style or shying away from words that are out of the ordinary. The English language is rich and varied, with a plethora of words to capture and express precise meanings and subtle nuances. Perhaps most importantly, the words you choose set the tone of your writing and give it life.

It’s fine to choose simple, everyday words if your goal is informality and you feel that approach will resonate with your audience. But in other contexts, don’t be afraid to add an odd word or write more formally, even if it might make readers pause for a moment. They might have to glean a word’s meaning from the context of the sentence, or maybe even look it up. While too much of that gets tiresome, I never object to learning a new word or two as I go along — your readers won’t either.

Think about how refreshing it is to read something that takes a stand. Are employees interested in the new recycling program or has it actually galvanized them as a team? Did the technology change the way the organization works or transform it?

A word can create emphasis  simply because it is less common — it’s obvious you chose it for a reason. The turnaround wasn’t surprising, it was astounding. The extra step didn’t slow the process, it stymied it. Last year wasn’t just a challenging one for the industry, it was abysmal.

Many years ago, I worked at a local historical society whose approach to writing exhibit labels was to write for an 8th-grade reading level. I never understood that practice. It seemed to short-change both the topics and the readers — and felt like talking down to people. The majority of our visitors were adults, not pre-teens.

The Bottom Line: Why not give the audience the benefit of the doubt? Use the broad array of words at your disposal to make even Plain English interesting and engaging.

###

The difference between the right word and the nearly right word
is the same as that between the lightning and the lightning bug.
~ Mark Twain

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