Speaking in Plain Language

Speaking in Plain Language

Not long ago some people in our government decided it would be a good idea for government documents to be comprehensible. That is, they wanted the people who write government documents to write in ways that people can understand. They called this Writing in Plain Language.

Language at Work was fortunate enough to be around at that time, and we were called upon to develop some training for these prospective Plain Language writers. We developed some training, which we called Writing Courses.

The first thing we did was review a lot of government documents so we could see writing in language that was not plain. What we found was a culture that supported the ignoring of most rules of good, clear writing. In its defense I can guess that there was no command decision to make poor writing choices, but rather a gradually accepted agreement that government writing was complicated because:

  1. There was a lot of information to be thrown at the public, things with Very Involved Titles About Very Important Things that could be best treated by giving them nicknames (VITAVIT?)
  2. There were a lot of arcane rules and regs that most people wouldn’t understand anyway, so codes could be used to reference them
  3. There were legal concerns that might have prevented definitive statements about anything.


It is possible to write about things that are dense, important, mysterious, arcane, and touchy in ways that people can understand. Some of those ways include:

1. Use language that you’re pretty sure your audience will understand;

2. Say what you mean;

3. Use complete sentences.

As I think about this clear, concise way of writing I think about how this topic applies to speaking. How many people need help with Plain Language Speaking?

Applying Plain Language Writing strategies to speaking might work:

1. Using language that our audience can understand seems so simple, but consider this:

Clichés are not only really uninteresting, they can be unclear. If someone says your disagreement is now “water under the bridge”, do you feel that you know everything you want to know about how things stand now? (Is that an apology? Are we going to forget it, or just agree not to talk about it?) Recently the coach of a winning hockey team was said to have “pulled the right punch in sending out those players.” I guess we assume he put the right guys on the ice, but…..?! Or if a team mate says the plan is “the same old same old, is this as helpful as it could be? Which parts are the same? Is this good or bad? I’m not saying we should never use a cliché. I am saying that they are, again, really uninteresting, which alone suggests a possible laziness of thought, and they lack precision.

2. “Say what you mean” seems pretty straightforward, but straightforward is exactly what many speakers seem to avoid, lest they be locked into an actual opinion. If you are uncertain, you can precede your statement with “I’m not certain about this”, or “I could be persuaded, but…”

3. Speak in complete sentences. Does anyone do this? Many utterings I hear are either sound bites, or marathon length strings of words. This seems to be especially evident in The Political Debates where word groups are thrown around instead of complete thoughts, and shifts of direction occur mid-word, let alone mid-word group.

Hearing complete sentences with identifiably punctuated endings – preferably not statements with question marks- (My name is Homer?) is a wonderful experience. Something is offered for the listener to take in and ponder and hold onto for examination. It is much more satisfying than hearing blurts of phrases or unending word recitals from which the speaker seems helpless to escape. Sentences suggest thought. So nice.

Plain Language Writing turns out to be plain good writing that can be understood. Having that goal for speaking seems just plain good, too.

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