Thoughts and brain dumps

Thoughts and brain dumps

By Andy Hawthorne. Words, photos, code and running…

15 Dec 2019

Plain English, Please

Reading time: 3 minute(s) - 500 words

There’s a lot of words out there.  Many of them exist in layers in a way that disguises their meaning. Which raises the question: what’s wrong with plain English?

There’s nothing wrong with plain English. 

Many people would claim to support it - while writing drivel. You see, plain English is an elusive beast when you want to get the words down  and then move on. 

Anyway, here are some plain English facts you can use in your writing today.

It’s not ‘cat sat on the mat’ writing

Yeah, I love this one. 

There are people (often academics) that argue plain English is over-simplification. It’s not. You can write as much as you need. And you can say what you need  to say. 

I find myself writing documentation for complex software.  The software is dealing with complex problems. That’s the reason why the documentation has to be clear. 

There’s a lot to explain and much of it is technical. I don’t hide from that or dumb it down. Instead, I work hard to make it as clear as I can. 

Grammar still matters

Another popular misconception about plain English is, the grammar rules are not important. Wrong again. Grammar is important. BUT we are not striving for perfect grammar  all the time.

Oh and we are not banishing long words, either. 

It’s not amateur writing

There are loads of professional people who write using plain English. Banks and insurance companies for example, produce explanatory documents written with plain English. 

There is the point that plain English is not as easy to achieve as it sounds. So far from amateur, then. 

What counts as plain English?

I’ll be writing about each of these in their own right. But for now, here’s a quick run through:

  • Use short sentences - vary your sentence length but don’t exceed 18-20 words. Strike hard. But vary the pace, too.
  • Use active verbs - so the television was watched by Andy is not it. Andy watched the television, is. That’s a simple rule: (S)subject, (V) verb (O)object. SVO - easy to remember.
  • Talk to your reader by using ‘we’ and ‘you’ - avoid sounding like a robot writing for other robots. In conversation we use inclusive language. Let that feed through to your writing.
  • Use appropriate words - banging on about quarks and dark matter is great. Only if your audience are physicists.
  • Don’t fear imperatives - read this blog to help you write with clarity. There, a simple, direct message. It doesn’t hurt, does it?
  • Try to normalise. Normalisation is something like this: we had a discussion about the matter. Whereas: we discussed the matter is more direct and clear. Normalisation is the use of abstract nouns. The word abstract indicates the problem, right?
  • Use lists… (ahem)

So, plain English is something to aim for in all your writing. Your readers will thank you for it.

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