Plain Style in Prose

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

plain style
"Often we will talk about writing that is 'clear' or 'lucid,'" says Frank L. Cioffi, "and this is offered as a virtue: the argument and ideas are clearly seen, as if through a windowpane of prose" (The Imaginative Argument, 2005). (VWB photos/Getty Images)

In rhetoric, the term plain style refers to speech or writing that is simple, direct, and straightforward. Also known as the low style, the scientific style, the simple style, and the Senecan style.

In contrast to the grand style, the plain style does not rely heavily on figurative language. The plain style is commonly associated with the matter-of-fact delivery of information, as in most technical writing.

According to Richard Lanham, the "three central values" of the plain style are "Clarity, Brevity, and Sincerity, the 'C-B-S' theory of prose" (Analyzing Prose, 2003). That said, literary critic Hugh Kenner has characterized "plain prose, the plain style" as "the most disorienting form of discourse yet invented" ("The Politics of the Plain," 1985).

Observations and Examples

"I am glad you think my style plain . I never, in any one page or paragraph, aimed at making it anything else, or giving it any other merit—and I wish people would leave off talking about its beauty. If it has any, it is only pardonable at being unintentional. The greatest possible merit of style is, of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought."
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, letter to an editor, 1851)

  • "The only way to write plainly, as a worker should, would be to write like [George] Orwell. But the plain style is a middle-class accomplishment, got by arduous and educated rhetorical effects."
  • (Frank Kermode, History and Value. Oxford University Press, 1988)
  • "The plain style . . . is completely unadorned. It is straightforward and void of any figures of speech. It is the style of much contemporary newspaper prose. Cicero thought it was best suited for teaching, and indeed, the plain style is the idiom of the best schoolbooks of our age."
    (Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight Over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. University of California Press, 1990)

    The Power of the Plain Style

    • "In political language, plainness is powerful. 'Of the people, by the people, for the people.' 'Ask not what your country can do for you.' 'I have a dream.' This is especially so for language designed to be heard, like speeches and debate exchanges, rather than read from a page. People absorb and retain information in smaller increments through the ear than through the eye. Thus the classic intonations of every major religion have the simple, repetitive cadence also found in the best political speeches. 'In the beginning.' 'And it was good.' 'Let us pray.'”
      (James Fallows, "Who Will Win?" The Atlantic, October, 2016)

    Cicero on the Plain Style

    • "Just as some women are said to be handsomer when unadorned—this very lack of ornament becomes them—so the plain style gives pleasure when unembellished. . . . All noticeable ornament, pearls as it were, will be excluded; not even curling irons will be used. All cosmetics, artificial white and red, will be rejected. Only elegance and neatness will remain. The language will be pure Latin, plain and clear; propriety will always be the chief aim."
      (Cicero, De Oratore)

    The Rise of the Plain Style in English

    • "At the beginning of the 17th century, the Senecan 'plain style' enjoyed a significant and widespread boost in prestige: this came from playwrights like [Ben] Jonson, low-church divines (who equated ornate persuasion with deceit), and, above all, scientists. Francis Bacon was particularly effective in associating Senecan plainness with the aims of empiricism and inductive method: the new science demanded a prose in which as few words as possible interfered with the presentation of object reality."
      (David Rosen, Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry, Yale University Press, 2006)

    • The Royal Society's Prescription for a Plain Style
      "It will suffice my present purpose to point out what has been done by the Royal Society towards the correcting of its excesses in Natural Philosophy . . ..

      "They have, therefore, been most rigorous in putting in execution the only Remedy that can be found for this extravagance, and that has been a constant Resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness; bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can: and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that, of Wits, or Scholars."
      (Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society, 1667)

      Example of the Plain Style: Jonathan Swift

      • "[B]ecause it is idle to propose remedies before we are assured of the disease, or to be in fear till we are convinced of the danger, I shall first show in general that the nation is extremely corrupted in religion and morals; and then I will offer a short scheme for the reformation of both.

        "As to the first, I know it is reckoned but a form of speech when divines complain of the wickedness of the age; however, I believe, upon a fair comparison with other times and countries, it would be found an undoubted truth.

        "For, first, to deliver nothing but plain matter of fact, without exaggeration or satire, I suppose it will be granted that hardly one in a hundred among our people of quality or gentry appears to act by any principle of religion; that great numbers of them do entirely discard it, and are ready to own their disbelief of all revelation in ordinary discourse. Nor is the case much better among the vulgar, especially in great towns, where the profaneness and ignorance of handicraftsmen, small traders, servants, and the like, are to a degree very hard to be imagined greater. Then it is observed abroad that no race of mortals have so little sense of religion as the English soldiers; to confirm which, I have been often told by great officers of the army that in the whole compass of their acquaintance they could not recollect three of their profession who seemed to regard or believe one syllable of the gospel: and the same at least may be affirmed of the fleet. The consequences of all which upon the actions of men are equally manifest. They never go about as in former times to hide or palliate their vices, but expose them freely to view like any other common occurrences of life, without the least reproach from the world or themselves. . . ."
        (Jonathan Swift, "A Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners," 1709)

        Example of the Plain Style: George Orwell

        • "Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer."
        • (George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946)

        Hugh Kenner on the Disorienting Plain Style of Swift and Orwell

        • "Plain prose, the plain style, is the most disorienting form of discourse yet invented by man. Swift in the 18th century, George Orwell in the 20th are two of its very few masters. And both were political writers—there's a connection. . . .

          "Plain style is a populist style and one that suited writers like Swift, Mencken and Orwell. Homely diction is its hallmark, also one-two-three syntax, the show of candor and the artifice of seeming to be grounded outside language in what is called fact—the domain where a condemned man can be observed as he silently avoids a puddle [in Orwell's 'A Hanging'] and your prose will report the observation and no one will doubt it. Such prose simulates the words anyone who was there and awake might later have spoken spontaneously. On a written page, . . . the spontaneous can only be a contrivance. . . .

          "The plain style feigns a candid observer. Such is its great advantage for persuading. From behind its mask of calm candor, the writer with political intentions can appeal, in seeming disinterest, to people whose pride is their no-nonsense connoisseurship of fact. And such is the trickiness of language that he may find he must deceive them to enlighten them. . . .

          "What the masters of the plain style demonstrate is how futile is anyone's hope of subduing humanity to an austere ideal. Straightness will prove crooked, gain will be short-term, vision will be fabrication and simplicity an intricate contrivance. Likewise, no probity, no sincerity, can ever subdue the inner contradictions of speaking plainly."
          (Hugh Kenner, "The Politics of the Plain." The New York Times, September 15, 1985)
          mla apa chicago
          Your Citation
          Nordquist, Richard. "Plain Style in Prose." ThoughtCo, Mar. 27, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 27). Plain Style in Prose. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Plain Style in Prose." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 16, 2018).