Updated September 2023

People have a lot of questions about “plain language”.

  1. What is “plain language”?
  2. Isn’t it boring?
  3. Does that mean I have to dumb down complex concepts?

Plain language is not vanilla

Photo of Vanilla Orchid Zanzibariensis from the Flickr Commons:https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5258/5404875255_76ed050dfc.jpg

Photo of Vanilla Orchid Zanzibariensis from the Flickr Commons

A lot of the confusion around “plain language” stems from a problem with word choice. “Plain” does sound boring when coupled with “language”. It conjures up other terms like “plain Jane” or “vanilla”. The latter isn’t bad as a flavoring or an orchid (in the photo), but it's not a trait we want associated with our content.

Yet when we couple "plain" with other words, it doesn’t come off quite so dull. For instance, “just plain stupid” is a darn clear indictment. “Plain English” doesn’t infer “mind-numbing”, it infers clarity. Somewhere we stopped using English and we lost the context. Plain English sounds like a positive trait. Plain language sounds blah.

So let’s revisit those questions with a new perspective:

What is “plain language”?

It’s clear, direct and efficient wording that makes concepts easier to understand for our target audience. It avoids or explains technical terms and jargon. Think plain English.

Isn’t plain language boring?

It doesn’t have to be. Here are some examples of “plain language” that are anything but dreary:

  • “The surprise drop in unemployment led some to question September jobs report.”
  • “This year, 2007’s record has not been merely broken, it has been smashed.”
  • "Developing countries should enforce patent rules vigorously."

Does plain language mean dumbing down complex concepts?

No, but we do need to choose different details, like explanations and examples, that will resonate with our target audience and increase comprehension.

Here’s a passage from an Economist article on economic policy in China -- hardly a simple subject. The writer does a good job of explaining why bad investments are a concern despite China’s large cash reserves.

“China’s high investment is backed by even higher saving. As a consequence, China does not need its investment to generate high returns in order to pay back external creditors. It has, in effect, already set aside the resources that will be lost if its investments turn sour. The real cost of bad investment lies elsewhere. It squanders the hard-earned saving of China’s citizens, leaving them with empty malls rather than much-needed clinics, vacant villas alongside over-crowded dormitories, sewers that cannot cope with downpours, and buildings that collapse like tofu.”

This example from The Week defines "genetically modified food":

“It comes from a plant or animal that has been genetically modified, usually by adding a gene from another organism, to give it desirable traits that can’t be achieved through normal breeding.”

3 tips for descriptive writing

Plain language isn’t plain at all. It’s actually quite vivid. Here are some tips for infusing your content with clearer, more effective language that engages your audience and conveys your concepts:

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Photo of Vanilla Orchid Zanzibariensis from the Flickr Commons:https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5258/5404875255_76ed050dfc.jpg