Beware of those who dogmatically trumpet "Plain English"—except where it countsby Sam Leith / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
One of the pieces of advice you most often hear, when it comes to writing, is to use Plain English. It’s usually capitalised that way. And there’s even a Plain English Campaign, fighting the good fight against bureaucratic obscurity and evasive legalese.
The reasons to use Plain English are fairly obvious. If you use commonly understood words and short sentences, and avoid long subordinate clauses, you will be easier to read and understand. You minimise the cognitive load on the reader, and by pitching a document at its least literate readers, you maximise the audience that will comprehend it.
But are there ever reasons not to? There are aesthetic ones. Plain English, at its most stripped down, is no good for poetry and good for only certain sorts of fiction. It tends towards what Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero”—something minimally inflected with distinctiveness of style. That’s not always what a writer or reader wants.
There’s reason to be cautious about fetishising Plain English as a moral virtue rather than a pragmatic choice. There’s a type of person who regards Orwell’s frequently silly list of rules in “Politics and the English Language” as holy writ, and accordingly pronounces anathema on passive constructions or boasts a Ukip-flavoured preference for “Anglo-Saxon” words. A cousin of this sort is the one who prefers their verbs “strong” and “active” (you know, the sort of verb that takes cold showers and shaves twice a day), mistrusts adverbs and duffs up semicolons.
But where Plain English really makes a difference is in customer-facing language—which is what the Plain English Campaign, rightly, concentrates on. Obscurantism positively thrives in legal small print and official communications. It invariably does so to the material disadvantage of the reader.
How many of us, to take a pressing example, ever read properly the vast terms and conditions to which we sign up when we use an app, a website or an online service? Three cheers, then, for the Children’s Commissioner for England, who recently published a Plain English translation of Facebook’s terms of service to make it plainer to teenage users of the site what they are signing up for.
In Facebook’s defence, its full terms and conditions are far from the most tangled that you’ll find out there. In fact, they are very far from a thicket of legalese. Still, they run to around 3,500 words and the Plain English version is a shade over 1,000.
So Facebook’s T&C documents has the unexceptionable “4.2. You will not create more than one personal account. 4.3. If we disable your account, you will not create another one without our permission.” The Plain English version is: “You can only have one personal Facebook account; if we delete it, you must not make another.” Plainer, definitely; but the original is not opaque.
The real value of the Plain English T&Cs is threefold. First, it’s short enough that it can be reasonably expected that a teenager will read it. The second is subtler, and it’s not wholly to do with sentence-by-sentence prose style. It’s more to do with what, in the canons of rhetoric, is called “arrangement.”
Facebook’s cleverness is that the alarming stuff isn’t buried in legalese: it’s written, plainly, on another page. You need to click a link to get to the Data Policy—“we encourage you to read the Data Policy, and to use it to help you make informed decisions,” they say blandly under the heading “Privacy.”
That’s where you find out what data they are actually harvesting—from the battery life and location of your phone to activity on pages quite unrelated to Facebook itself. The Plain English version puts all that up front.
A third difference is tone: “We can use your name, profile pictures and information… to make money and we don’t have to pay you for that.” That’s balder, I dare say, than the company would like. The more online small print on which the Children’s Commissioner goes to work, the better.