Definition and Examples of Plain English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Young man writing English sentences on the blackboard
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Plain English is clear and direct speech or writing in English. Also called plain language.

The opposite of plain English goes by various names: bureaucratese, doublespeak, gibberish, gobbledygook, skotison.

In the U.S., the Plain Writing Act of 2010 took effect in October 2011 (see below). According to the government's Plain Language Action and Information Network, the law requires federal agencies to write all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner that follows the best practices of plain language writing.

Based in England, the Plain English Campaign is a professional editing company and pressure group committed to eliminating "gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information."

Examples and Observations

"Plain English, it turns out, is the product of craft: an understanding of the reader's needs, the translation of alienating jargon, establishing an easy pace that readers can follow. Clarity of expression comes most of all from a clear understanding of the topic or theme you are writing about. No writer can clarify for the reader what is not clear to the writer in the first place."
(Roy Peter Clark, Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

"Plain English (or plain language, as it's often called) refers to:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a cooperative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.

This means pitching the language at a level that suits the readers and using good structure and layout to help them navigate. It doesn't mean always using simple words at the expense of the most accurate or writing whole documents in kindergarten language . . ..

"Plain English embraces honesty as well as clarity. Essential information should not lie or tell half-truths, especially as its providers are often socially or financially dominant."
(Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to Plain English, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009)

Plain Writing Act (2011)

"The federal government is rolling out a new official language of sorts: plain English. . . .

"[President Barack] Obama signed the Plain Writing Act last fall after decades of effort by a cadre of passionate grammarians in the civil service to jettison the jargon. . . .

"It takes full effect in October, when federal agencies must start writing plainly in all new or substantially revised documents produced for the public. The government will still be allowed to write nonsensically to itself. . . .

"By July, each agency must have a senior official overseeing plain writing, a section of its website devoted to the effort and employee training under way. . . .

"'It is important to emphasize that agencies should communicate with the public in a way that is clear, simple, meaningful and jargon-free,' says Cass Sunstein, a White House information and regulation administrator who gave guidance to federal agencies in April on how to put the law into place."
(Calvin Woodward [Associated Press], "Feds Must Stop Writing Gibberish Under New Law." CBS News, May 20, 2011)

Plain Writing

"As for plain English writing, think of it as having three parts:

- Style. By style, I mean how to write clear, readable sentences. My advice is simple: write more the way you talk. This may sound simple, but it's a powerful metaphor that can revolutionize your writing.
- Organization. I suggest starting with your main point almost all the time. That doesn't mean it has to be your first sentence (though it can be)--just that it should come early and be easy to find.
- Layout. This is the appearance of the page and your words on it. Headings, bullets, and other techniques of white space help your reader see--visually--the underlying structure of your writing. . . .

Plain English is not limited to expressing only simple ideas: it works for all kinds of writing--from an internal memo to a complicated technical report. It can handle any level of complexity." (Edward P. Bailey, Plain English at Work: A Guide to Writing and Speaking. Oxford University Press, 1996)

Criticism of Plain English

"As well as the arguments in favour (e.g. Kimble, 1994/5), Plain English also has its critics. Robyn Penman argues that we need to consider the context when we write and we cannot rely on a universal principle of plain or simple English. There is some evidence that Plain English revisions do not always work: Penman quotes research including an Australian study which compared versions of a tax form and found that the revised version was 'virtually as demanding for the taxpayer as the old form' (1993), p. 128).

"We agree with Penman's main point--that we need to design appropriate documents--but we still think that all business writers should consider the recommendations coming from Plain English sources. Unless you have clear contrary evidence, they are the 'safest bet,' especially if you have a general or mixed audience." (Peter Hartley and Clive G. Bruckmann, Business Communication. Routledge, 2002)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Plain English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of Plain English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Plain English." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).