Reinventing English: Why plain language isn ’t so simple.

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Fri Mar 9 06:43:44 UTC 2007

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

Reinventing English: Why plain language isn’t so simple.

Almost a decade ago Bill Clinton and Al Gore ordered the federal  
government to begin communicating with Americans in plain English.   
All government documents created after Oct. 1, 1998, had to use easy  
words and short sentences, plus pronouns like you and the active  
voice.  Agencies were given three years to rewrite all their old  
documents in plain English as well.

If my recent struggle with IRS Form 1040 is any example, that  
directive, like the Clinton administration’s other attempts to  
reinvent government, institute universal health care, decriminalize  
military homosexuality, or get anything done at all, failed  
miserably.  Perhaps it was the Republican Congress, not the English  
language, that tripped them up, but then again, Clinton wasn’t even  
sure what the meaning of a simple word like “is” is.

Now Los Angeles County has jumped aboard the “plain language”  
bandwagon, spending over $200,000 on a computer program to make its  
documents easier to read.  But the LA initiative, like its federal  
predecessor, is doomed to fail...

... the four keystones of plain English don’t guarantee  
comprehension.  Using simple, everyday words may sound like a recipe  
for clarity.  But in the 1930’s, the philosopher C. K. Ogden put  
together a set of 850 words -- he called them Basic English-- which  
could express just about anything.  Basic English never caught on,  
because few philosophers can get by on 850 words, and even ordinary  
readers with average vocabularies of forty to eighty thousand words  
(the actual number depends on what the word word means) need more  
words to keep their interest from flagging.

Short sentences don’t work either, because, despite the fact that  
Pascal once apologized for a long letter by saying, “I only made this  
longer because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter,” no one can  
really agree on when a sentence is short enough.  Is a  six word  
sentence ideal?  Two words?  One?  Less than one?  Uh . . . .

As for pronouns, it’s impossible to write without them.  And while  
most people agree that the active voice is better than the passive,  
few people even know what the passive voice is (many people confuse  
it with the past tense).

... The writer’s job is not to be simple or complex, not to follow a  
formula or diverge from it.  The writer’s job, in plain English, is  
to keep the reader reading.  Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to  
do that, no formula of the just-add-water variety that guarantees  
perfect prose every time. ...

find out more, on the Web of Language


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

read the Web of Language:

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list