Tag Archives: Plain English

Jargon or Plain English? Weigh in.

A while back, wrapping up a conference call, I told the other meeting participants I would “ping” someone after the meeting. I immediately felt foolish.

Pinging someone is one of those buzzwords I had heard often, but never used. Originally it was a technical computer term — to ping someone’s IP address to check an Internet connection. Now it’s a generic term for e-mailing or IMing or texting someone — “I’ll ping Erika after the meeting and let her know what you need.” I could have said, “I’ll e-mail Erika” or “I’ll call Erika,” or simply, “I’ll let Erika know.” Instead, I pinged her.

I doubt the other guys gave it a second thought, but jargon is one of those things that writers are taught to be acutely aware of. Particularly with this client, who has a whole initiative around what they call “Straight Talk” and what has been around for years as the Plain English movement. Basically, it’s the idea that you simplify writing, removing complexity (like legalese — the party of the first part, and all that) and often meaningless jargon (business-speak like bandwidth, net-net, leverage, value-added) to write more clearly.

It’s true, particularly in Marketing, that you can do an awful lot of writing that says nothing (it’s a lot like blogging). Not doing it is hard because it forces you to think about what you really mean and demands a deeper understanding of the subject. Frequently, I don’t have that deep understanding, nor do I always need it. I just need to bang out something that sounds semi-intelligent and let the SMEs sort it out. When they insert their knowledge, I can go back and “plain up” the language.

People talk to each other in terms they understand. In business, everyone knows what you mean by the bottom line, by scope creep, by taking something offline. It really was OK that I pinged someone, even though I felt hesitant because I’d never put it that way before. I just wanted to fit in (sniff) — and using the common language does that. It’s saying what sounds and feels right for the audience and gets your point across.

In other (better) words: When in Rome…

After many years and many meetings, I’m comfortable in that business world. But many of my business clients — even though their clients are businesspeople as well — are uncomfortable using that sort of language in marketing materials, even though they talk to clients that way in person.

I’m torn: Clearly some informal terms are inappropriate for formal business writing. (A few years ago, a game even sprung up to make fun of the way the business world talks — Meeting Bingo or Bullshit Bingo. You can be sure “ping” is on the newest release.) But at times, I think “speaking the language,” whether jargon or not, is just fine. It’s part of the business culture, the lingua franca. Every profession has its way of talking, whether medical or construction or manufacturing or retail. (Or writing…SMEs [smees] = subject matter experts. Writers have lingo too.)

Isn’t Plain English all about writing in terms the audience understands?

What’s your take? Answer the poll to weigh in.


Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves,
spits on its hands, and goes to work.
~ Carl Sandburg



Filed under Writing With Style

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:


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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Filed under Writing With Style