Plain English (also referred to as layman's terms or plain language) is a generic term for communication in English that emphasizes clarity, brevity, and the avoidance of technical language—particularly in relation to official government or business communication.
The goal is to write in a way that is easily understood by the target audience: clear and straightforward, appropriate to their reading skills and knowledge, free of wordiness, cliché and needless jargon. It often involves using native Anglo-Saxon, or Germanic, words instead of those derived from Latin and Greek (see linguistic purism in English).
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The term derives from the 16th-century idiom, "in plain English", meaning "in clear, straightforward language".
In 1946, writer George Orwell wrote an impassioned essay, "Politics and the English Language", criticising what he saw as the dangers of "ugly and inaccurate" contemporary written English – particularly in politics where pacification can be used to mean "...defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets...". Two years later Sir Ernest Gowers, a distinguished civil servant, was asked by HM Treasury to provide a guide to officials on avoiding pompous and over-elaborate writing. He wrote, "writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer's job is to make his reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely."
Gowers' guide was published as a slim paperback Plain Words, a guide to the use of English in 1948, followed by a sequel The ABC of Plain Words in 1951 and, in 1954, a hardback book combining the best of both, The Complete Plain Words – which has never been out of print since. Gowers argued that legal English was a special case, saying that legal drafting:
- ...is a science, not an art; it lies in the province of mathematics rather than of literature, and its practice needs long apprenticeship. It is prudently left to a specialised legal branch of the Service. The only concern of the ordinary official is to learn to understand it, to act as interpreter of it to ordinary people, and to be careful not to let his own style of writing be tainted by it...
However, there is a trend toward plainer language in legal documents, and in fact the 1999 "Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts" regulations mandate "plain and intelligible" language. In the UK, Plain English Campaign has been campaigning since 1979, "against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. They have helped many government departments and other official organisations with their documents, reports and publications. They believe that everyone should have access to clear and concise information." An inquiry into the 2005 London bombings recommended that emergency services should always use plain English. It found that verbosity can lead to misunderstandings that could cost lives.
In Ireland, there is growing awareness of and interest in using plain English, particularly in the public sector. The Public Sector Reform Plan and the Central Bank’s Consumer Protection Code advocate for the use of plain English in the public and financial sectors respectively. The recently published universal design National Standards Authority of Ireland guidance document on Universal Design includes plain English guidelines for energy suppliers. The main organisation promoting the use of plain English in Ireland is the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). They host a popular plain English website.
In the US the plain language movement in government communication started in the 1970s. The Paperwork Reduction Act was introduced in 1976. and in 1978 President Carter issued Executive Orders intended to make government regulations "cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them." Many agencies now have long-standing policies mandating plain language and in 2010 this was made a federal requirement with the Plain Writing Act.
In legal writing, the late Professor David Mellinkoff of the UCLA School of Law is widely credited with singlehandedly launching the plain English movement in American law with the 1963 publication of The Language of the Law. In 1977, New York became the first state to pass legislation requiring plain English in consumer contracts and leases. In 1979, Richard Wydick published Plain English for Lawyers. Plain English writing style is now a legal duty for companies registering securities under the Securities Act of 1933, due to rules the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted in 1998.
- List of plain English words and phrases
- Plain English Campaign
- Simplified Technical English, used by the international Aerospace and Defense industries.
- Linguistic purism in English and List of Germanic and Latinate equivalents in English
- Scribes: The American Society of Legal Writers
- Simple English Wikipedia
- Corporate jargon
- Weasel word
- Ammer 1997
- Gowers 1954a: "Prologue"
- Gowers 1954b: "Chapter 2"
- OFT 1999: "A term is open to challenge if it could put the consumer at a disadvantage because he or she is not clear about its meaning – even if its meaning could be worked out by a lawyer."
- BBC News
- The Telegraph
- Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995
- Locke 2004
- Plain Writing Act of 2010
- Siegel 2010
- Berent 2010
- Oliver 2000
- Martin 2000
- Sec. Act Rel. 33-7380 1997
- "A history of plain language in the United States Government". PlainLanguage.gov. Plain Language Action and Information Network. 1995. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013.
- Ammer, Christine (1997). The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms. Houghton Mifflin. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013.
- Berent, Irwin (2010). "Background: Plain Writing Legislative History, 2007-2010". Plain Writing Association. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- Gardham, Duncan (10 March 2011). "7/7 inquests: emergency services should use plain English". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- Gowers, Ernest (1954). "Prologue". The Complete Plain Words. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013.
- Gowers, Ernest (1954). "Ch. 2". The Complete Plain Words. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013.
- "High Court rules against Foxtons". BBC News. May 1, 2011. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
- Martin, Douglas (16 January 2000). "David Mellinkoff, 85, Enemy of Legalese". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- Mazur, Beth (May 2000). "Revisiting Plain Language". Technical Communication (Society for Technical Communication) 47 (2). Archived from the original on 29 March 2013. Retrieved 29 March 2013.
- Oliver, Myrna (4 January 2000). "David Mellinkoff; Attorney Advocated Plain English". LA Times. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- "Plain English Campaign". BBC News. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- "Plain Writing Act of 2010: Plain Language in Federal Agencies". PlainLanguage.gov. Plain Language Action and Information Network. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- "Sec. Act Rel. 33-7380".
- Siegel, Joel (17 October 2010). "Obama Signs 'Plain Writing' Law". ABC News. Archived from the original on 28 March 2013. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- Cutts, Martin (1996). The Plain English Guide. Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-860049-6
- Rook, Fern (1992). Slaying the English Jargon. Society for Technical Communication, ISBN 0-914548-71-9
- Williams, Joseph M. (1995). Style, Toward Clarity and Grace. University Of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-89915-2
- Wydick, Richard C. (1979). Plain English for Lawyers. Carolina Academic Press, ISBN 1-59460-151-8 (paperback 5th ed., 2005)