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Aaron Dalton

What Is Plain Language? Part 1: A Definition

Illustration of a person typing. A text-based document is on the screen, and letters, numbers and symbols float outside the monitor.
Illustration of a person typing. A text-based document is on the screen, and letters, numbers and symbols float outside the monitor.
Copyright: ramcreative

This is the first in a series of articles discussing the basic principles of plain language that I’ve found successful in my teaching. These principles may not be new to my fellow editors. Perhaps some material here will be useful in your own educational efforts.

My experience is with non-fiction, mostly technical, writing. I would love to hear in the comments how these principles might apply to fiction writing. I did find one article on plain language in speculative fiction that I thought was lovely.

Defining plain language

The definition I use in my workshops comes from PlainLanguage.gov (emphasis added):

Plain language … is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.…

Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Material is in plain language if your audience can:

    • Find what they need
    • Understand what they find the first time they read or hear it
    • Use what they find to meet their needs

I love this definition because it focuses on the outcome instead of prescribing specific actions. (The group working on the ISO standard for plain language is working with a similar definition). This gives authors and editors flexibility in how they meet the outcome. It also recognizes the centrality of audience. It doesn’t rule anything out. If you are indeed writing something for a very narrow specialist audience (e.g., a journal article intended for other people with graduate degrees in the subject), then jargon and established genre norms are not only acceptable, they may be essential. But as your audience broadens, the effort required to make your document more easily digestible increases.

Helping readers understand

The reality is that you can’t force anyone to read your document. So if you care about actually communicating something, then it is incumbent upon you, the writer, to make the document easy to read. Plain language is about shifting the hard work from the shoulders of your hapless readers to yours, where it belongs. You are the subject-matter expert. You know what it is you want to say. Don’t make your readers try to guess.

Yes, it takes more effort to produce a plain language document. But with practice and planning (the topic of a later article), it doesn’t have to take much more time. And any additional time you invest usually pays off in the long run by staving off customer support calls and lengthy explanatory email exchanges.

Balancing accuracy with precision

But just as important as what plain language is is what it is not. If there’s one phrase I hate, it’s “dumbing down.” It degrades your readers. They are not dumb; they’re just busy. And you making efforts to meet them where they are should be an act of kindness, not condescension. Some people complain that plain language is imprecise. This isn’t necessarily true. You must simply balance accuracy with precision. I think of plain language writing as an act of translation. It’s true that English doesn’t have an exact equivalent to the German word schadenfreude, but that doesn’t mean you can’t convey the same meaning. It just means it will take more words.

At its core, plain language is about empathy. It’s about getting out of your own head, thinking about who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to say, and then making it as easy as possible for your audience to understand you.

How do you use the term “plain language”? How do you apply this principle in your work?

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Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Zen and the Art of Editing

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6 Comments on “What Is Plain Language? Part 1: A Definition”

  • Gael Spivak

    says:

    Nice post, Aaron. I especially like the part about empathy. It’s so true.

  • Wendy J Barron

    says:

    Great post, Aaron. 100% agree that writing in plain language is an act of kindness and respect. Where I work, at Legal Aid BC, readers aren’t just busy, they’re also stressed. Angry, frightened, worried people don’t take information in as well, period. Plenty of them also have language, literacy, learning, or technological barriers, too. The very least we can do is treat the most challenged readers with compassion and respect. It’s a bonus that this approach benefits all other readers, too.

    • Thanks so much, Wendy. So true! I really encourage people read the book « Plain Language and Ethical Action: A Dialogic Approach to Technical Content in the 21st Century, » which I talk about in another post: https://blogue.editorscanada.wpengine.com/?p=6136. It talks about this very thing!

  • Susi Cormack Brown

    says:

    Interesting post, Aaron. I’m afraid you lost me, though, at ‘balancing accuracy with precision’.

    • Thanks, Susi. The example I use related to this is earthquakes. We had a public-facing document that said the « seismic events were 4.0 local magnitude (ML). » If you stop 100 people on the street and ask them how do you measure the strength of an earthquake (I’ll leave « seismic event » vs. « earthquake » aside for now), almost all of them will say « Richter scale. » Almost none of them will know what « local magnitude » is or how it differs from « moment magnitude » or « Modified Mercalli. » So the plain language approach would say that even though giving the number according to the Richter scale may not be *precise* (it’s not how it was actually measured or how geologists would describe it), it’s 100% *accurate*. And if that means your audience will understand it easier than using the precise technical term, well that’s a win.

      Going back to the example in the article, there may not be a precise English equivalent of the German word schadenfreude, it’s perfectly acceptable to simply say « pleasure derived from the misfortune of others » and move on—not precise, but completely accurate.

  • Mike

    says:

    This is great. I particularly like the idea of being able to understand text _the first time_. Readers don’t want to work at interpreting texts; in fact, they probably don’t want to be reading at all, they want to be doing. (With technical/instructional texts, anyway.)

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