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Aaron Dalton

What is Plain Language? Part 3: When You Assume …

Illustration of a large arrow pointing to the right in a crowd of smaller arrows pointing to the left, signifying going against the flow. (godruma ©
Illustration of a large arrow pointing to the right in a crowd of smaller arrows pointing to the left, signifying going against the flow. (godruma ©
Copyright: godruma

This is the third in a series of articles discussing the basic principles of plain language by Aaron Dalton.

You’re preparing a speech for a community association. You disagree with a particular policy, but you moderate your language because you “know” that most people disagree with you. What nobody realizes, though, is that actually, most people disagree with the policy but don’t say anything. This is “pluralistic ignorance.”

The most prominent and perhaps best studied example of pluralistic ignorance is college binge drinking. Many young adults engage in binge drinking despite their misgivings because they believe most people don’t share those misgivings. Showing students that many others feel the same way has a dramatic effect on the behaviour. In a similar exercise in my workshops, I interrogate and disprove assumptions as a way of changing writing norms. I do this by referencing two sources.

The first is one of a number of surveys done by John Kirkman for his book Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology. He took a lengthy paragraph from a research paper and rewrote it using principles of plain language. He then sent both versions to almost 2,800 subject-matter experts and asked two questions:

  1. Which style do you prefer to read when you read scientific texts?
  2. Which style do you think is more appropriate for scientific texts?

Seventy-four per cent of respondents preferred the plain language version, but only 57 per cent said the plain language version was appropriate for publication. That 17 per cent gap is pluralistic ignorance. Those are people that personally prefer the clearer text but think that their peers feel differently, and so they go along with the assumed norm.

The other source I like to use is Helen Sword’s excellent book Stylish Academic Writing. Academic writers will often tell me they’re “not allowed” to write in a certain way. That’s when I like to break out the figures from the first half of Sword’s book. She randomly selected 500 journal articles distributed across 10 different subject areas, from medicine to literary history, and examined them for elements of plain language, including the use of personal pronouns, non-normative structure, and engaging titles and openings. The results clearly demonstrated that “stylish” writing abounds in the published literature. As Sword eloquently put it:

«These statistics will, I hope, give courage to academics who want to write more engagingly but fear the consequences of violating disciplinary norms. A convention is not a compulsion; a trend is not a law. The signature research styles of our disciplines influence and define us, but they need not crush and confine us.» (p. 22)

In addition to these sources, I have gradually amassed examples of our organization’s documents that have been well received by audiences. When authors see other approved and published documents that meet the standards we’re espousing, it helps break down walls. And when authors of these successful documents see the final result, and especially when they hear positive feedback from readers, they often become independent advocates for plain language. It’s one thing when an editor you don’t know well recommends a major change. It’s another when a colleague on your own team supports or even makes the recommendation.

How have you seen pluralistic ignorance in your work? What tools have you used to combat it?


Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Review: The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt

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5 Comments on “What is Plain Language? Part 3: When You Assume …”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Exactly. I saw this in the civil service. A provincial government employee wrote a book about a leader in educating the gifted and talented, and he asked me to edit it. I said yes but was worried that it would be written in the opague and cumbersome style he used in the letters and articles he wrote for his job in the government.

    The book manuscript turned out to be really readable and interesting. The guy clearly knew how to write well but thought he was supposed to use a certain style for the writing he did in his government job.

  • Gael Spivak


    Another excellent post, Aaron. I’ve seen this happen over and over. One person at my work told me she was so relieved to learn from me that she didn’t have to write in the bureaucratic style she saw around her. She was finding it difficult and exhausting to translate her words into government-speak, and she just wanted to communicate clearly.

  • I tell people that one of the reasons for the workshops is to give them permission to write clearer. This is why examples examples of good organization writing is so helpful. It’s a type of guerrilla warfare. If I can help frontline staff produce clearer writing from the beginning, then the final product after all the approvals will be that much better. I can’t change the system, but I can try to maximize value despite it 🙂

  • Claire Wilkshire


    This is great work, Aaron – really interesting and helpful in terms of how we think about language and style. Thanks!

  • Frances Peck


    What a terrific article, Aaron. As always. The notion of pluralistic ignorance is new to me. What you’ve said about it clarifies so much of the resistance to plain language, or fear of it, that I’ve encountered in workplaces. I hope this post is widely read. I’m sharing it with workshop participants later this morning.

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