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Flowery is not your friend

How can we write in 'plain English'? This short article from the Government Campus UK course on Foundations of Writing introduces the topic.

‘Plain English’ sounds like an easy thing to achieve. Just use normal words.

But in practice it’s much harder than that. We looked at how jargon and acronyms can worm their way into our thinking and writing. This is also true of certain phrases and certain habits of writing, which can confuse other people and obscure our real meaning.

If you want to write plain English, here are some things to avoid:

  • flowery language: it’s not a ‘missive’, it’s a letter. It’s not an ‘egress point’, it’s an exit. I’m not ‘alighting from this service at the next station stop’, I’m getting off the train at the next station – and so on.
  • old-fashioned business English: ‘having due regard to’, ‘notwithstanding’, ‘I have been asked to advise you’, ‘grateful if you could notify us by return’.
  • Latin: i.e. and e.g. are probably fine, but lots of other Latin can creep in to official and business English, and you should make it creep out again: quid pro quo, re, per se, ipso facto, de minimis.
  • elaborate ways of avoiding responsibility: such as writing ‘An error occurred in our most recent communication with you’ rather than ‘We made a mistake in our letter of 10 February’.
  • mixed metaphors: such as ‘the Council are trying to shoehorn in a stable full of Trojan Horses’ (a real-life quote from a local politician).

Sometimes the problem is more fundamental. Here’s a real-life example from the website of a well-known business:

Learning technology in the new work environment needs to be connected, intelligent, and embedded into the flow of work while aligning with dynamic business needs and employee expectations. Our Integrated Capability and Metrics Platform (ICMP) is an innovative solution that increases learner engagement and outcomes by delivering a connected learning experience by streamlining operations and integrating with your existing learning ecosystem.
We won’t ask you to attempt a translation! This paragraph includes some professional jargon (‘learning ecosytem’), and the sentences are certainly too long. But the main problem is with plain English – what does it actually mean?
(It is also an example of where spelling out an acronym – ICMP = Integrated Capability and Metrics Platform – doesn’t actually help very much.)
Here is a real paragraph from a UK government document, which was quoted in a Parliamentary report into (bad) official language:
The onion model set out the Government’s vision of what was needed to achieve whole system change. There is an urgent need for still greater integration at every layer of the onion in frontline delivery, process, strategy and governance. At the level of service delivery in particular there remain significant practical, philosophical and resource barriers to full integration.

The philosophical barriers within the onion are not being explained in plain English here.

The next two steps include some practical exercises on writing plain English.

How well do you think your organisation communicates in plain English? Are you at risk of falling into these traps? Please share any thoughts – and advice – in the comments. We have also provided links to plain English resources in the Further Resources step at the end of this week.

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Foundations of Writing

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