Plain English

This one comes from a post a little while back (I Posted This Because Reasons), where I promised I’d talk a little about ‘plain English’.  This one’s a bit technical and dry, so I’m going to try and keep this both brief and entertaining.

Have you ever tried to read anything that was written at the beginning of the century?  Particularly anything academic?  It’s like trying to wade through a swamp, with the pesky midges and mosquitos of ‘will this damned sentence ever end?‘ biting you in the ass all the way.  Heck, some modern academia is still like this.  As any student will tell you, there’s one in every essay.

Where in the heck did this come from?  Is it just that people were smarter and more literate then?  Is it just different writing styles?  Different usage of words?
Weeeeellllll, yes and no.  Except for that first one – the answer to that one is hell no, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  The problem actually goes way, way back to the 17th Century.  See, English has had this hangover for a long time from the Norman Invasion.  After that, the native language – English – was a peasant tongue.  If you were educated and refined and civilised, you spoke French.  Later, this extended to Latin as well.  Basically, for a very long time, the language in fashion wasn’t English.  There’s a reason Chaucer was so revolutionary, writing his stories in English.
At any rate, eventually English sort of found its feet, and the language went on its merry way as the primary language of the country – the one used for all the important stuff, too.  But there was still (and this is partly speculation on my part, so don’t take this as academically rigorous) still a feeling that, in order to write academically, you had to distinguish yourself from the rest of the language.  I’ve no idea how much this has been influenced by other languages in other countries – I don’t know enough about enough of them to tell you how different the formal types of language differ there.  It could well be that there are long traditions in other countries (particularly the French, Latin, Greek, etc. that English speakers used to show off their knowledge and education by learning) have influenced English into this idea as well.

Of course, the ‘academic writing is for the educated’ thing had another influence – in the 17th Century (and a little later, and most likely earlier as well), it was a kind of marker of intelligence, being able to read the most famous books of the time.  Therefore, people would try to increase status by writing and reading the most obtusely-written books possible.  Hence that endless-sentence thing I mentioned earlier.

Nowadays, we’re kind of recovering from that.  As more and more people are educated, and more an more people are requesting access to these books, people have started to complain about the language.

And this is where the Plain English movement comes in.  It’s not new – heck, the term was coined by Chaucer (IIRC), so we’re definitely not the first people to think of this.  It’s just probably the first time it’s actually been a major discussion in the world of academic writing.
Possibly.  If I’ve understood this right.

Quick note: Plain English does not mean dumbed-down.  It doesn’t mean using only the simple ways to express things.  It certainly doesn’t mean using high-school (or worse, primary-school) language to describe University-level (or PhD-level, or higher) concepts.  It just means not deliberately making things difficult to read.  It means no run-on sentences.  It means paragraphs are separated out into easy chunks, rather than having pages and pages of text.  It means choosing the simplest word that still means what you need it to mean.  Jargon is OK.  Saying “the material is a superconductor, and this one is highly electronegative” is perfectly acceptable – the people who are interested in reading will either know these words or be willing to look them up in order to understand.  Saying “the level of verisimilitude in the movie is to be highly appraised” when you mean “I was impressed by how realistic the movie was” is just plain silly.

Me?  I’m entirely behind this movement.  I’m a child of the Internet – I like my information accessible and easily spread.
And I suppose I’ll always be a creative writer before an academic one. I’m always going to believe in making things as fun as possible for people to read, no matter what the information I’m conveying is.

For more information, check these guys out:

Plain English Foundation

I’m going to stop now, before I sound any more like PSA.

3 thoughts on “Plain English

    • Thanks – it’s actually a really interesting topic. Or maybe I’m just a dork. I’d actually love to meet someone who’s against the Plain English movement and have a discussion with them – I’ve never really met anyone, so I bet there’s some interesting arguments there.

  1. Pingback: Why I Don’t Write YA Fiction | Whimsy and Metaphor

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