PLAIN ENGLISH—Part 1
1.0 Description (What is plain English?)
On page 4 of his Oxford Guide to Plain English, Martin Cutts says:
“Undoubtedly, plain English is a woolly term. As no formula can genuinely
measure the plainness of a document, I would rather describe plain
English than define it. In my view, plain English refers to:
The writing and setting out of essential information in a way
that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of
understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that
the writer meant it to be understood.
This means pitching the language at a level of sophistication that suits the
readers and using appropriate structure and layout to help them navigate
through the document. It does not mean always using simple words at the
expense of the most accurate words or writing whole documents in kindergarten
language—even if, as some adult literacy surveys claim, about seven million
adults in the UK and 70 million adults in the US cannot read and write competently.”
A Plain English Handbook—How to create SEC clear documents by the Office of Investor Education and Assistance, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission describes plain English thus:
We’ll start by dispelling a common misconception about plain English
writing. It does not mean deleting complex information to make the
document easier to understand. … Plain English means analyzing and
deciding the content before words, sentences, or paragraphs are considered.
A plain English document uses words economically and at a level the audience
can understand. Its sentence structure is tight. Its tone is welcoming and direct.
Its design is visually appealing. A plain English document is easy to read and
looks like it’s meant to be read.
In Clarity no.59 May 2008 issue, Annetta L. Cheek says:
The basic principle of plain language is that the intended audience can
use the document for its intended purpose. And the most certain way to
tell that is by testing the document with the intended audience. This is
true whatever the language and whatever the cultural context.
Plain English is easy to read, understand, and act upon after just one reading.
Wikipedia describes Plain English as a generic term for communication in English that emphasizes clarity, brevity, and the avoidance of technical language—particularly in relation to official government or business communication.
PDF ‘The Art of Writing in Plain English’ by Say it Once Ltd says:
Plain English is not about dumbing down. It is not using words
that are merely simplistic or childish. It is about writing with your
audience in mind. It takes care not to assume your audience’s prior
knowledge of your product or service, or their background knowledge
of your business or your industry. What it does do though, is to place
the needs of your audience over other considerations.
It also puts it in another way:
“A communication is in plain English if it meets the needs of its
audience – by using language, structure and design so clearly
and effectively that the audience has the best possible chance of
readily finding what they need, understanding it and using it.”
This definition was accepted by the International Plain Language Working Group and was found in Cheek, A. ‘Defining plain Language.’ Clarity 64 (2010): 5-25
In other words plain English is a writing style. The language, structure and design of a document all work together to help the reader understand it at first reading, in a way that the writer meant it to be understood.
Simply put, plain language should be reader-friendly.
Plain English is marked by simplicity, clarity and honesty. It’s simple in thought and expression; it carries within it ideas that are straightforward and expressions that are devoid of ambiguity; it’s honest in its intent, it doesn’t doublespeak, it doesn’t hide facts. And it’s has no finality about it for it’s not an absolute.
Besides, it’s seen in connection with the writing rather than speaking.
1.2 The need for plain English (Why plain English?)
The need for plain English was first felt in the area of legal writing (legalese with archaic terms, redundancies, awkward phrases, ambiguities) since at least the fourteenth century—See Stephen Hunt’s "Drafting: Plain English versus Legalese"  WkoLawRw 9; (1995) 3 Waikato Law Review 163 and Peter Butt’s Legalese Versus Plain English—1332-1452-1 SM PDF in Amicus Curiae Issue 35 June/July 2001
Much later—in the second half of the twentieth century, that is—the need for plain English was felt in the area of dissemination of ‘essential information’ to the public through business and government letters and reports, consumer contracts, product instructions, leaflets and forms on tax, health, welfare and legal rights, and rules, regulations and laws (p.2 of Oxford Guide to Plain English by Martin Cutts, Second Edition, 13th impression 2012).
“…clearer documents can improve people’s access to services, benefits, justice and a fair deal. If people understand what they are asked to read and sign, they can make more informed choices and know more about their rights and duties. The might even see more clearly what business and government are up to.” (p.16, ibid)
1.3 The history of plain English (Where did plain English spring from?)
Let’s us look at the development country-wise. A case for plain English was made out to start with in England and the US, and later several other countries followed suit.
With the arrival of Normans in England, French became the language of the elite including the bench and the bar. But the English wives of French nobles spoke and taught English to their children. By 1360, pretty much everyone in Britain had switched back to English – except judges and lawyers, who kept conversing in French and reading in Latin. The result, over time, was that English and Norman French were used together. Since two languages were in operation, the scribes decided to use Norman, English and sometimes Latin in writing the documents. This resulted in two-word and three-word combinations like acknowledge and confess, act and deed, breaking and entering, final and conclusive, free and clear, goods and chattels.
The complexity of the language increased with the use of words like aforesaid, herein, hereof, hereinafter, hereunder, hereinbefore, wherein, whereon, whereas, therein, thereon, therefore and ad nauseam by scriveners because the scribes were paid by the word. Also because lawyers got paid by the number of pages of cases they argued in court.The language thus became long-winded and convoluted.
Attempts to change it
The Statue of Pleading by the Parliament in 1362 was the first attempt towards giving importance to English and it required that all pleas be “pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English Tongue”. Funnily enough, it was in French. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a desire and a wish began to grow in the minds of several including a king –in Chaucer’s Dreme, William Tyndale’s Bible, Edward VI’s wish, Robert Cawdray’s first ever English-to-English dictionary, Quakers’ use of plain English, the barrister George Coode’s attempt, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s call. The second attempt promoted by Cromwell in 1650 in favour of English as the language of the legal profession was repealed in 1660 following the Restoration. The legislation passed in 1730 was the third attempt; however, two years later, it was partially repealed. It took 700 years of passing legislation before the United Kingdom parliament broke up its legislation into sections and put in some headings. Before that it was margin to margin solid blocks of text.
In the 1920s, C K Ogden and I A Richards devised Basic English, supported by Winston Churchill. But the attempt fizzled out as a force for plain language in the 1950s. Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr. advocated the use of Plain English in his book The Elements of Style was originally written in 1918 and was later revised with the help of Edward A Tenney in 1935. In 1946, writer George Orwell wrote an impassioned essay, "Politics and the English Language". Two years later Sir Ernest Gowers was asked by HM Treasury to provide a guide to officials on avoiding pompous and over-elaborate writing. He wrote, "writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer's job is to make his reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely." Plain English as a phrase first appeared in the 1974 Consumer Credit Act which required the agencies their contents in plain English to consumers on request. The 1979 protest (by Chrissie Maher, one of the greatest pioneers in Plain English campaign along with Martin Cutts who himself is a hero in the Plain English campaign) where unclear government forms were shredded impacted the Thatcher government enough to issue a white paper that resulted in abolishing unnecessary forms and clarifying others. Town halls followed suit with setting up of plain-English committees. In 1995 the government set up the Tax Law Rewrite Project to convert tax law into plainer English. In 1999 new rules of civil procedure abolished some time-honoured legal terms for clearer expressions: a subpoena is now a witness summons, an ‘in camera’ hearing is now a private hearing, and a writ is now a claim form. Even the venerable term plaintiff has been replaced by claimant. An inquiry into the 2005 London bombings recommended that emergency services should always use plain English. It found that verbosity can lead to misunderstandings that could cost lives.
1.2.2 The US
John Adams criticised legalese and the "useless words" in the colonial charters. Thomas Jefferson was critical of statutes for their verbosity, their endless tautologies, their involutions of case within case, and parenthesis within parenthesis that made life difficult not only to common readers, but to lawyers themselves. In 1939, Fred Rodell’s, an Yale law professor, crusade against legalese culminated in a book with a recommendation that every law be written so that its meaning became plain for all to read. After the world war II, Jim Minor and others favoured the use of plain language in government documents. John O’Hayre wrote a book called Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go. Stuart Chase addressed the issue in The Power of Words (1953). Through his publication of The Language of the Law, the late Professor David Mellinkoff launched the plain English movement.
President Nixon ordered that the Federal Register be written in ‘layman’s terms’ and thus gave a push to the plain English movement in 1972. Around this time, the Department of Education initiated the Document Design Project and, with help from Carnegie-Mellon University, Siegel & Gale and American Institute for Research, helped several agencies write plain language documents. The team brought out Guidelines for Document Designers that served as a handbook for many years for government writers. The Paperwork Reduction Act was introduced in 1976. In 1977 Ralph Nader published an article: “Gobbledygook.” That fuelled public resentment towards legalese. In the same year, the Federal Communications Commission recommended plain English to Citizens Band Radios.
In 1978, President Carter issued Executive Orders intended to make government regulations “cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them.”
However, in 1981, President Reagan left the decision to each individual federal agency. Vice President Gore declared ‘Plain language is a civil right.’ He presented No Gobbledygook awards monthly to federal employees who turned bureaucratic messages into plain language that citizens can understand. Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) Plain English Handbook appeared in 1998 that made plain English mandatory for companies registering securities under the Securities Act of 1933. By 1991, eight states had passed statutes encouraging plain language. A Presidential Memorandum by President Clinton in 1998 required federal employees to write all new regulations in plain language.
The move to use plain English in all communications continued. FAA has a strong plain language programme of its own. The Office of the Federal Register has produced two excellent aids to plain language, Making Regulations Readable and Drafting Legal Documents. An Interagency Plain Language Forum was started in 2002 by National Institutes of Health which urged its staff and throughout the government to communicate in plain language. Finally, in 2008, the Federal Government passed the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008, which requires agencies to rely on the Federal Plain Language Guidelines or the SEC's Plain English Handbook. President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The Act requires that federal agencies use "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” and achieve full accountability of federal agencies to the public.
The Sentry Insurance car policy and the Citibank loan agreements which appeared in early 1975 are generally recognised as the first manifestations of the current plain English movement.
In 1985 the Commonwealth government engaged Professor Eagleson to revise the forms for social security claims and income tax returns. He also helped the NRMA to produce a plain English insurance policy, the first of its kind in Australia. He also published a number of articles on plain English.
The Australian government gave its full support to the growing plain English movement in
1983, when it introduced the ‘Plain English and Simpler Forms Program’ and in 1990,
International Literacy Year, the government launched several initiatives to promote the use
of plain English in all sectors.
The Centre for Plain Legal Language was established at the University of Sydney in 1991
and was one of the few organisations in the world devoted to researching the use of plain
In 1993 the federal Attorney-General's Department began the Corporations Law
Simplification Program but it was disbanded in 1997 because it made the effort more lengthy and complex.
In 1996 the National Board of Employment, Education and Training published ‘Putting it
Plainly’. The same year, Mills and Duckworth26 published a study based mainly on their research into the introduction of a new, plain English divorce application form in the Family Court of Australia.
1,2,3 Other countries
The use of plain language in law documents, government rules and regulations, documents of other agencies like health and insurance has been promoted in Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore, Sweden.
However, India has a different story to tell.
In India, legalese and officialese is preserved. Mr Jyoti Sanyal, the author of Write it Right: The Statesman Style Book, wishes that plain English should replace the commercialese, officialese, legalese, jargon, and circumlocution that characterise the laws and official documents of various agencies.
In his article published in Clarity—a Journal of the International Association Promoting Plan Legal Language—no. 53, May 2005, Vijay K Bhatia, Professor, Department of English and Communication, City University of Hong Kong, has this to say:
English is not our first language in India. But the union government,
the judiciary and the state governments at the higher levels conduct
their business in English... But no attempt seems to have been made…
to simplify the English used by government agencies. The Plain English
Movement seems to have left the shores of India untouched.
In his Foreword to Jyoti Sanyal’s INDLISH Reprint 2007 published by Viva Books Private Limited, New Delhi, Martin Cutts has this to say:
“At the request of the Federation of Consumer Organisations of Tamil
Nadu, I visited four times in the 1990s to give lectures and workshops
for the British Council for clarity in business and official writing. …
I came, I talked, I sowed a few seeds …but I fear I conquered not.
There was no vigorous flowering of plain language in Indian education,
journalism or business.”
In his article, Towards a lingua franca for India, published in Clarity, no.59, May 2008, Jyoti Sanyal, argues that plain language cannot take off in India as its linguistic scenario doesn’t permit it. For plain language to be possible, Indians must speak a common language but they don’t. Hindi the official language cannot be understood by the Southern States. The official Hindi is heavily sanskritised and so cannot be understood by the common man in Northern States because their Hindi is Hindustani, which is a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. Even the Right to Information Act that came into existence only in 2005 is worded in obscure legalese of the 18th century. Not because people are too stupid to simplify obscure language, but because such effort is never considered necessary where feudal ideas persist. And only 4% of Indians (a country of 1.3 billion people) use English. Although that works out to around 40 million, it means using what could be a ‘closed language’ for 96% of Indians.
However, Mr Sanyal also spearheaded the Plain English movement in India, and towards this cause founded Clear English India (http://www.clearenglish.in/) in 2005. Clear English India believes that that it is possible and necessary to write in plain language at all times. It demands that the government should draft all laws in plain English and also in plain regional languages and make them accessible to the public because they have a right to know and understand what the law says without assistance from lawyers or officials.
1.3 Efficacy of plain English (Does plain English work?)
Readers of documents written in plain English said they were more comfortable with them than the traditional ones. This was clearly indicated by (1) an American study of instructions given by word of mouth to jurors, (2) testing understanding of medical consent forms in the US, (3) the Social Security Administration’s annual benefit statement. The experience in the UK was along similar lines. Plain Language Commission successfully tested Cutts’ Clearer Timeshare act with 90 senior law students; consequently, the UK tax department formed two groups to rewrite tax laws into plainer English. Surveys and studies conducted in the US revealed that readers were comfortable with the documents written in plain English.
For 1.0, 1.1., 1.2 and 1.3:
1. Martin Cutts. Oxford Guide to Plain English. OUP 2012
2. History of Plain English at http://plainenglish.net.in/history-of-plain-english
3. John Pease’s Plain English presented at ACLA National Conference at Queensland in
4. Mark Cohen’s A Brief History of “Legalese” and the Plain English Movement at
5. Column on June 1, 2002: A brief history of plain English at
6. Joanne Locke. A History of Plain Language in the United States Government (2004) at
7. Joyti Sanyal. Towards a lingua franca for India. Clarity-- a Journal of the International
Association Promoting Plan Legal Language, no 59, May 2008
8. Vijay K. Bhatia. Plain English in Asia. Clarity—a Journal of the International Association
8. Vijay K. Bhatia. Plain English in Asia. Clarity—a Journal of the International Association
Promoting Plan Legal Language, no 53, May 2005
10. Clarity is an international association promoting plain legal language
This Association publishes a journal named Clarity that discusses issues related to plain