Beware of those who dogmatically trumpet "Plain English"—except where it countsby Sam Leith / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.