Archive for August, 2010

Plain Language In Plain English

August 14, 2010

By Nirmaldasan


Plain Language In Plain English, edited by Cheryl Stephens, is filled with information, knowledge and ideas about various aspects of plain language. The editor collaborated with about 20 plain English experts (I am one of them!) to produce this volume targeting every person who has to write functional documents such as ‘business letters, handbooks, instructions, proposals, progress reports, and so on’.

Written mostly in the imperative style, the book tries to explain the principles and best practices in the profession without becoming pedantic. Divided into seven parts, it takes the reader from preliminaries (definition and plain language process) to a very useful collection of resources, including letter etiquette checklist and word substitution lists.

Literary compositions seldom descend to the reader’s level; plain English documents, on the contrary, have to reach the audience. Part B teaches us how to understand and differentiate primary, secondary and significant audiences. Parts C and D deal with planning, structuring, writing and rewriting plain language documents. Part E (After You Write) discusses a few readability formulas; and Part F is all about implementing a plain language policy.

This book contains some very good quotations. Albert Einstein: “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” Will Rogers: “I love words but I don’t like strange ones. You don’t understand them and they don’t understand you. Old words is like old friends, you know ’em the minute you see ’em.” Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Illustrations and cartoons break the grey and ‘prompt you to stop and think about an issue from another person’s perspective’, the perspective of the consumer and not that of a provider of services.

Personally, I liked the book — not just because my picture (on page 138) is among a constellation of plain English experts. I learnt a few things from this book. I now know, among other things, the 4 item rule and the 7-second rule. I also have come to understand that there is more to plain language than the writing of it. Thank you, Cheryl Stephens, for putting this book together, while exercising tight editorial control lest too many cooks spoil the broth.

Published in April 2010, Plain Language In Plain English is available for sale online. For more details, visit: