Plainly speaking…

Could you please repeat that -- in plain English?
Could you please repeat that — in plain English?

Each fall the Center for Plain Language in Washington, D.C., grades agencies of the federal government, non-profits and private companies on their efforts to write clearly. Their reports certainly make interesting reading; see the full report card for U.S. government offices here:

Writing in plain language entails many different elements from words and phrases to euphemistic labels and clichés. English is often deliberately made obscure, unclear or overly complex — when the point should simply be to communicate. (But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Let’s begin with a list of some redundant words and phrases, usually labelled pleonasms or pleonastic phrases by linguists — and these labels are themselves perfect candidates for translation to Plain English.

all-time record  record
by means of  by
close proximity  proximity (or ‘is close’)
controversial issue issue 
during the period  during
firstly  first
for a period of   for
herein   here
herewith  here
in an effort to  to
most unique  unique
past history  history 
rather unique  unique
reason why   reason 
set forth in  in
together with  together or with (but rarely both)
totally demolish  demolish
totally destroy destroy

The examples above are but one limited category of words that can result in obscure language or just excessive wordiness in writing. Keep checking this blog for some of the other categories.

The Center for Plain Language also publicizes awards annually, winners and losers basically: ClearMark and WonderMark. The name of the second award I dare guess is probably short for I-wonder-what-the-f-they-are-talking-about. You can see the lists of the latest finalists by clicking on the links below::



If you would like to read more about the center and its activities, visit their website here. In summary, it’s plain that we should keep our language clear and not leave our readers to wonder what we mean.


Enough said … writing and rewriting

Blue plume penIt is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. Friedrich Nietzsche

There is no great writing, only great rewriting. Louis D. Brandeis

Of every four words I write, I strike out three. Nicolas Boileau

Omit needless words. William Strunk Jr.

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. Henry David Thoreau

The best writing is rewriting. E. B. White

An incinerator is a writer’s best friend. Thornton Wilder

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. James A. Michener

Most of my work consisted of crossing out. Crossing out was the secret of all good writing. Mark Haddon

I hate editors, for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words. Mark TwainRed x pen

And never the twain shall meet…

Two, or more, ways to spell many words.
Two, or more, ways to spell many words.

Here we see two different ways to spell the same word, but let’s hope the different spellings don’t meet … at least not in the same paragraph, or even in the same document for that matter!

Speaking of twain (archaic for two), consider Mark Twain who expressed his disdain for editors, often and strongly. He is acknowledged as saying “…he must have little genius who can’t spell a word in more than one way.” Actually this quote has had many incarnations including something about a writer who can only think of one way to spell a word lacks imagination. Or he who cannot spell a word more than one way cannot be trusted. Or he [Twain] had no respect for someone who cannot spell a word more than one way.

Twain does make a valid point; variation enriches language. But variation of this type can confuse and irritate the reader. When we write, we help our readers by maintaining consistency. Variation can be added with synonyms: same meaning, different words, not the same word, different spellings.

Mark Twain had strong opinions and great insight. As a writer and human. Variation in our writing is desirable for novels and creative works. Blogs … tweets … emails … notes … letters … personal communication. Language is so much richer for the variation and nuances we use.

But to disseminate – spread – information fluently and with ease, one standard would serve us well.  Consider efficiency and speed. Beyond literature and reading for enjoyment, our time is limited … business reports, technical manuals, trade journals, academic manuscripts and daily newspapers should not challenge us to read and reread the same sentence again and again.

On a global level, to communicate a message clearly, a unified, logical, systematic form of English is desirable. In plain English. It is much more difficult to write precise, accurate text than long-winded ramblings where the writer is clearly lost. What can we expect of the reader then.

When we write to communicate information, consider these points: write concisely … write clearly … write short sentences … use short words. Except for blogs where we can have some fun breaking the rules and enjoy the ambiguity and double-entendre English is so full of. (There. I broke a rule … broke quite a few, in fact!)

Plain English. One English. Please.

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.