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…