What is plain language
when there's more than one egg on the wall?

Mark Adler homepage > Comment > What is plain language …?

Despite over 30 years of campaigning, the plain language movement has not achieved a consensus as to what plain language is.

Over the last few years the problem (if it is one) has been exacerbated by the world-wide spread of heterogeneous plain language practitioners offering to write or edit a firm's documents or to train the firm's staff to do the work themselves.

Now some practitioners want to improve their status by creating a formal, regulated, profession. In 2008 the main umbrella organisations for those interested in the field — Clarity and PLAIN — working with the Center for Plain Language in Washington and the Plain English Foundation in Sydney — formed an International Plain Language Working Group to look into the possibilities.

Philip Knight, an eminent legislative drafter and a leader of the plain language movement, opposed the scheme as wrong in principle. He argued (in private correspondence) that to encourage lawyers to change their language required "a positive culture that encourages openness, experimentation, competition, variation" but "institutionalization, standardization, professionalization are anathema to this need".

He was right. Those of us working on the IPLWG's Options discussion paper couldn't even agree on the definition of plain language, and I withdrew from the project when I heard that the position that I shared with others was to be suppressed in order to avoid controversy.

It is not surprising that the definition should be contentious. Plainness is not an objective characteristic that can be observed as present in or absent from any given text. It is an inherently imprecise relationship between the text and an insufficiently known audience. Where on the continuum between the Platonic ideal of clarity and its opposite do we draw the line between plain and not plain? And how do we deal with the need to write a single text for different audiences? No answer to these (or various other) questions is definitive; there will be a range of decisions any one of which a responsible writer could reasonably make. In a liberal society such decisions should not be the preserve of a central authority.

Even the supposedly plain word plain is paradoxically unplain. Among the meanings listed in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973 revision) are:

I think all of us on the IPLWG implicitly accepted that the definition of plain should be more sophisticated than the anglophone public's perception of plain English (which is that it is a simplified form of English). Another paradox: our name for what we promote is misleading, on two levels: the name means something different to us from what it means to outsiders; and by using the expression we are covertly disobeying our own message.

Thinking all this through (and reading Bryan Garner and Phil Knight, both of whom were far ahead of me) has crystallized the view to which I have been edging for some time. Let us stop worrying about whether writing (or design, or speech) is plain and ask instead "Is it effective?". This would extend our enquiry into the hills beyond the plain without the need to adopt the dictatorial policy of the oviform Victorian linguist Mr H. Dumpty.

April 2013 note:

This theme is developed in
Full disclosure: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

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