Plain English, Plain Language – plain and simple

Double doublespeakIt all started with George Orwell when he wrote his essay “Politics and the English Language“ in 1946. Orwell was among the first in recent times to recognize that English was failing as a useful tool for communicating clearly and concisely. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four he coined the terms doublethink and newspeak and from there it’s but a short step to doublespeak.

Doublespeak is defined by Oxford Dictionaries online as deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language. (That’s a good description of many documents produced in government departments, legal offices, and even many private organizations.) Doublespeak has erroneously been credited to Orwell, but he is probably still responsible for the term. If only by analogy with doublethink and newspeak. In fact, linguists would call doublespeak a portmanteau, which is just a fancy term (French, of course) for a blend, borrowing the double from the first and the speak from the second. In keeping with Plain English, let’s call it by its more familiar name, a blend.  There we have it, a good example of Plain English working.

At one time or another we all cave in to the temptation of wanting to “dazzle and confound”, impress our colleagues and elevate our standing through the power of the pen, or now the pad, as in keypad or iPad. But there are many times that we should reconsider and choose the alternative: to write so anyone can understand us.

Now that is not to say that we should dumb down the English language. Not at all. There are just times when a simpler, straightforward word or term is the better choice. And that means we all have to write with the ultimate goal in mind – to give our readers information that can be read easily. One time. Reading a sentence twice is one time too many in today’s world of high-speed everything.

Historically the Plain English movement, in many forms, has been active in Great Britain and the U.S. since the 1970s. The Plain English Campaign in the UK states they are opposed to gobbledygook, jargon and legalese. Don’t forget the ubiquitous bureaucratese. And that can be extended to any terms that obscure meaning, or just simply complicate the message unnecessarily. As every writer knows, sometimes we have to kill our darlings. Ubiquitous is one of mine so let’s rewrite that as “…bureaucratese, which is found everywhere.” But don’t kill all your darlings. Just save these gems for your novel, blog or letters to your grandmother.

But back to history, in the U.S. in 1978 then-president Jimmy Carter issued an Executive Order with the goal of making government regulations “cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them.” Other administrations followed with mandates to state and government offices, and in 2010 President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 followed by a new Executive Order in January 2011. The document states “[…our regulatory system] must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.” If you visit the official government site here, smack in the middle of the homepage is the heading Plain Language – It’s the Law.

But history, law and bureaucracy aside, don’t we all just simply want to get our message across to readers in the best way possible?

So lawyers and bureaucrats everywhere, beware! If we all write so everyone can understand us, we might not need to pay others to interpret our own language for us.


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2 thoughts on “Plain English, Plain Language – plain and simple

  1. Actually, rethinking “doublethink”…is it technically a portmanteau? That is, must a portmanteau lack letters from both words, or is it a simple compound? If a compound, do we differentiate between compounds that are simply put together like tablecloth (a cloth used on a table), compounds that have two senses like doghouse (a shelter for a dog and to be in trouble) and doublethink which is not to think twice but two conflicting thoughts? What then are the “rules” for a portmanteau? Loss of letters in both words like motel from motor + hotel, or the loss of one letter as in newsspeak (or was it really newspeak from new + speak rather than news + speak?) Does the loss of a hyphen constitute a loss? Then is there a difference in a blend and a portmanteau? Comments appreciated!

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