The English language is spoken around the world from the United States to Tristan da Cunha, a remote group of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean. English is part of the Indo-European family of languages which are spoken in most of Europe and areas of European settlement and in much of south west and south Asia. The English language uses words from 350 languages and its evolution is fascinating, as shown in the short film below.
Currently it is thought there are around 1.5 billion English speakers, about one quarter of these are native speakers, with a quarter speaking English as their second language. Today the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 words, so it is hardly surprising humans struggle to understand one another and as amazing as the English language is, writing in plain English is important if your message is to be understood by as many people as possible. In some instances, the law even gives people a right to expect plain English. For example, European law states that terms in a consumer contract can only be enforced if they have been written in ‘plain and intelligible language’ and in the USA the Plain Writing Act was signed by President Obama in 2010.
What is Plain English?
Plain English encourages clear and concise use of the English language. It is best described as concise, easy to read and allows the reader to understand the message the first time they read it, whether that be web content, documents, emails or social media posts and being able to read quickly, means everyone can benefit from this style of writing.
Writing in plain English helps people:
- who have poor memory
- are easily distracted
- are slow at reading or processing information (one in six adults have difficulty reading)
- have difficulty identifying the main points from a long passage of text
- have a very literal understanding of language
- are reading in a hurry
- who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia (10% of the population who are believed to be dyslexic)
- speak English as a second language.
In a 2012 study by Christopher Trudeau, 80% of the people who responded said they preferred sentences written in plain English. The more complicated the issue, the more they preferred to read simpler language. It also found people with specialist knowledge had an even greater preference for plain English because they had more to read and did not have the time to wade through pages of content.
It is also important now so much reading is done online, as people read differently on the web than they do on paper. The IONAS website explains ‘Firstly, online content is read up to 25% slower, yet at the same time, the internet provides users with an unbelievable mass of information. The combination of these two factors means the average internet user has become impatient. Whether the text is a news article or a product description, these days it’s rare for users to consume each word like a good book. Instead, online texts are scanned and skimmed over, while search results are scoured and combed through. This must now be taken into account when designing web projects and content campaigns.’
Since 1979 The Plain English Campaign have fought for ‘crystal clear communications’, campaigning against what they call gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information, particularly in legal and government documents, believing that everyone should have access to clear and concise information. Working with thousands of organisations including many UK government departments, public authorities and international banks, The Plain English Campaign helps them make sure their public information is as clear as possible and promotes a writing style that enables readers to understand a message the first time they read it. The campaign encourages the use of short, clear sentences and everyday functional words, so for example, instead of ‘demonstrate’ say ‘show’, instead of ‘objective’ say ‘aim’ and instead of ‘in relation to’ say ‘about.’
The campaign officially began after its founder, Chrissie Maher OBE, publicly shredded hundreds of official documents in Parliament Square, London and delivered the first issue of the ‘Plain English’ magazine to 10 Downing Street dressed as the Gobbledygook Monster. Born in 1938, Chrissie could not read until she was in her mid teens, however, heavily involved in community work during the 1960s, she founded Britain’s first community newspaper, ‘The Tuebrook Bugle’. In the 1970s she set up ‘The Liverpool News’, the country’s first newspaper for semi-literate adults and Impact Foundation, a community printshop. Chrissie was invited to be a councillor on the National Consumer Council (NCC) when it was created in 1975 until 1979 and during this time she also started the Salford Form Market, a project to help people fill in forms, which led to the birth of the Plain English Campaign. In 1994 Chrissie received an OBE and has an honorary MA from Manchester University and a honorary doctorate from the Open University.
Organisations can now apply for The Plain English Campaign Crystal Mark, a seal of approval for the clarity of a document. Today the seal appears on over 23,000 different documents in the UK and in other countries including the USA, Australia, Denmark and New Zealand, while the Internet Crystal Mark enables organisations to show they are committed to plain English on their websites. The campaign also holds an annual awards ceremony which includes the Foot in Mouth award (for baffling quotes by public figures); Golden Bull awards (for the worst examples of written tripe) and the Kick in the Pants award (draws attention to companies or organisations who need to communicate in plainer English).
The Plain Language Network, The Plain English Foundation and The Writer are also useful sources of information, providing writing tools, training and raising awareness of plain language as a means of making communications accessible to a broad audience.
- 25 maps that explain English
- Britannica: Indo-European languages
- Companies House: Plain English … write less, say more
- Each Other: What is plain English and why is it important for human rights
- Editors Group: How to use the principles of plan English to improve your writing
- IONOS: Reading habits on the web
- The Big Hack: How to improve your writing with plain English
- And Read All Over: The real reason short words are best
- British Dyslexia Association
- Government Digital Service: Writing content for everyone
- History Extra: ‘Green-eyed monster’ and ‘stiff upper lip’
- Nielsen Norman Group: Writing for the web
- Plain English Campaign
- Plain English Foundation
- Plain Language Network
- The Guardian: We need to get rid of business jargon. Do I have your buy in?
- The Hemingway Editor
- The Reading Agency
- The Writer
- ThoughtCo: Humpty Dumpty’s philosophy of language
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