The Big Question: When might plain language not be the answer?

Kathryn Reeves | October 6, 2020

Write consultants answer a big question. Image by Arek Socha / Pixabay licence

This month’s question gets a bit radical. We asked a question posed by our consultant Simon Carter in a recent documents team meeting — a question that led to a spirited discussion.

We asked: When might plain language not be the answer?

Here’s what our people said.

Corinna Lines: If you want to be Shakespeare

Image, head shot of Corinna Lines

Corinna Lines, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

For any descriptive writing that uses imagery or metaphor, I think you’d want to use a wider range of words than what’s in your practical day-to-day vocabulary.

For an extreme example, let’s take some Shakespeare…

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If Macbeth had said this in plain language, he might have said:

Every day is the same, crawling by slowly.
Life is short and we are all fooled into thinking it matters.
We walk around feeling important, and then we die.
Life is meaningless, but we all want it to mean something.

The difference is that one is poetry and the other is prosaic. If you want to convey emotion, imagery, and rhythm — you need to expand your vocabulary so that your words affect your reader deeply. As always, choose your words to fit your purpose!

Earnsy Liu: You could try the opposite

Image, pair of sports shoes on a grey and white mottled background

Earnsy Liu, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Always, absolutely, and at all cost! Avoid plain language when you want to do any of these things.

Lynda Harris: Plain language is an approach, not a rulebook

Plain language is always the answer! Why? Because plain language is a reader-centric approach, not a rulebook. In any circumstance that I can think of, I want my communication to get through — with ease. In other words, the message is plain, the content connects, courtesy and care are evident, and the reader has what they need.

The International Plain Language Federation’s definition of plain language below sets us up to realise two fundamental truths about plain language.

A definition of plain language
A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

International Plain Language Federation

Truth #1: Plain language focuses on the audience, their needs, and how they might react

By implication then, what is plain to one is not necessarily plain to another. What is jargon to a layperson may be legitimate shorthand for an expert.

The active voice is useful most of the time. But in an incident report, we might want to focus attention on the person or thing being affected by an action, rather than who is performing the action. Putting your main message first in a letter is nearly always helpful — but in a ‘bad news’ letter it may offend. We adapt!

Truth #2: Plain language is far more than just words

Structure and layout are equally important and cannot be separated from the words. So too are appropriate content, nuance, flow, and connection. Focusing only on the words often prompts the assertion that plain language is ‘too simple’ and therefore inappropriate. Writing with our reader in mind will naturally involve all aspects of effective writing.

So once we let go of seeing plain language as a narrow ‘one-size-fits-all’ rulebook, we are free to do what it takes to truly communicate. Reader-centric (aka plain language) writing always wins the day.

Angie Collins: When ‘easy to read’ is not your brand image

Sometimes plain language just does not fit with your brand image.

I cherish the memory of visiting a tiny ancient second-hand bookstore in Bloomsbury Square, London. Picture old books crammed into tightly packed shelves, and in no discernible order. I asked the ancient man snoozing at the desk if there were any books on semaphore flags.

He jerked awake and waved vaguely towards one end of the shop. After an enjoyable search, I bothered him again to enquire whether he had anything in colour.

He glared at me and nearly dropped the barely smouldering roll-your-own cigarette glued to his lower lip, and exclaimed with horror, ‘Colour!?’ Shaking his head in disgust, he returned to his palm to snooze on.

I have never been so thrilled to be treated with such utter contempt as a customer! His tone suited the scene perfectly.

So if you too have no truck with all this modern, contemporary nonsense, and don’t want anything to do with customers who want that kind of thing, then there will be no place in your store for things that are ‘easy to read’.

Anne-Marie Chisnall: Your reader is at the heart of the task

image, head shot of Anne-Marie Chisnall

Anne-Marie Chisnall, Deputy Chief Executive and Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Plain language places ‘thinking of your reader’ at the heart of the task that is writing at work. By that definition, plain language is always the answer.

In our work with businesses and organisations, we often meet people who deny that plain language principles apply to their writing. They might say their topic is specialised or complex, technical or scientific — or for a sophisticated audience that’s knowledgeable about the topic. They might cling to ‘terms of art’ or in-house jargon. In all these cases, our plain language specialists would say that plain language can help.

Businesses and organisations need to connect with their audience to operate. For that reason alone, communicating clearly using plain language techniques is always the answer.

Inez Romanos: When you fancy a bit of literature

Image, patterned mug on a coaster made of lego

Inez Romanos, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

When I want literature, I want language that’s the opposite of plain. When I’ve had a hard day plainifying something challenging — legal or financial say, or ambiguous, or verbose… well, I might dive in my front door and head straight for a Shakespeare sonnet. A predictable structure set about with words familiar and unfamiliar, juxtaposed to express ideas that shift your relationship with the universe.

Literature is where language goes to play, to be its very best. Plain language informs us — beautifully if it’s done well. Literature transforms us — again, beautifully if it’s done well. Literature is where I go when I find myself thinking, ‘I want to write “plenteous” but as a word it’s neither precise nor familiar.’ It’s where I can escape for a while the strictures of the 20-word sentence. In the forests of literature, the trees are both bigger and smaller. Some bear poisonous flowers.

Then just the other day I noticed that some writers are plainer than others.

John le Carré can pack 5 years into a sentence. And sentences by Ian McEwan wind and turn in on themselves. Both authors will have me reaching for my dictionary to check fascinating, unfamiliar words.

And then I met Maurice Gee, late in my reading life. He’s an effortless read, his sentences clean and clear and brief, his vocab recognisable.

All three writers create characters you’d recognise in the street — you’d even know them by smell. Plots like clockwork, plausible and amazing. They lay out their world view, their experience, for you to revel in.

But Gee is definitely the plainer writer and I, editing-weary, appreciate him all the more for that.

Simon Carter: Plain language, heft, and twang

Headshot of Simon Carter

Simon Carter, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Plain language gets your message across quickly, and makes sure your reader can understand your message at one reading. That’s why plain language should be your go-to for most — if not all — of your work-related writing. It’s a sensible way to get a clear message across to your readers.

But sometimes some emotion, some heft, some twang is just what you need. (I’ve borrowed ‘heft and twang’ from Martin Amis’ 1984 novel, Money. The novel’s main character, John Self, describes his car as having ‘oodles of dash and heft and twang’.)

A hope-hefted speech that breaks plain language rules

Here’s a case in point. A sentence — from Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech — that’s long on heft and twang, but would fail our plain language test:

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our modern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

It’s too long, at 42 words. It contains a trapped list. A plain language version might work like this:

You should know that, somehow, this situation can and will be changed. You should remember this when you go back home to your homes in the southern states, or in the slums and ghettos of our modern cities.

But the emotional heft has gone. And it’s lost the lilting twang of those repeated short ‘a’ sounds in Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana. The percussive rhythm of the repeated ‘go back’ no longer lifts you up, ready for the payoff: ‘knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed’.

Maybe that’s an unfair example, given that it’s taken from an epoch-making speech that still resonates today.

An insurance policy with unexpected twang

Let’s look elsewhere. To an insurance policy. One from the American insurer Lemonade, a digital insurance company founded in 2015.

Here’s how Lemonade’s contents and personal liability policy explains what the policy doesn’t cover:

Damages not mentioned above, such as ‘I lost it’, ‘my dog ate it’, ‘my kid dropped it’, ‘my power went out’, ‘my computer died’, ‘my roof is leaking’, ‘I overfilled my bathtub’, ‘I found mold on my sofa’, aren’t covered.

Read the rest of Lemonade’s contents and personal liability policy on their website

This has the twang of the unexpected: ‘my dog ate it’. Many feel this just isn’t right for something as serious as an insurance policy.

But adding some emotion, showing some personality, is working for Lemonade. The US company now offers policies in Germany and the Netherlands, and will open for business in France later this year.

Read the article on Lemonade’s business expansion on the Business Insider website

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