Put simply, it’s misleading. Sometime back in the 1960s those of us who had read Orwell’s seminal essay on ‘Politics and the English Language’, and Ernest Gower’s little book on ‘Plain Words’ realised that not all was well with the way business and government used language in their communications with the public.

The answer, or so it seemed at the time, was to reform the language used by large organizations in their dealings with the public. This was the motive and rationale behind the growth of advocacy for PL in the UK, and through similar ‘provocations’ on the other side of the Atlantic.

Advocates like Martin Cutts and Chris Maher in the UK, Robert Eagelson in Australia and Joseph Kimble in the USA began spelling out what PL meant as a style, and how to write in a PL style. Many of the ‘truths’ of PL seemed self evident; read the ‘before’ and ‘after’, and it was OBVIOUS which was clearer. But it didn’t always work out. CRI (formally CRIA), among others, undertook and reported research showing that in some cases PL did not result in clearer documents. So we began to ask why, and what needed to be done to make communication between organizations and the public clearer.

Gradually what emerged were a number of factors outside language style that have a profound effect on the clarity of communication.

First among these is typography, or more broadly graphic design. No matter how simple the words or sentence structures, if the layout and overall design does not support the words, then clarity suffers. But this means that for writers to achieve PL as a worthwhile experience for readers, they require a set of skills that are well outside the teaching of writing in a particular style. But the name PL has stuck.

Second among the factors affecting clarity are the particular local contextual factors of how people read, their expectation of what they read, and the specific things they want to do with what they read. No amount of insight or empathy helps the writer deal with these contextual factors. The only way to ensure that something is clear to a specific type of reader is to test the material with potential readers. Once again to achieve PL outcomes requires yet another set of skills that take people beyond words and beyond graphic design. But still the name PL has stuck.

I could go on at some length to mention other vital skills that have been discovered to be essential to achieve PL outcomes: skills associated with design methods and processes, management of stakeholders, the introduction of performance requirements, baseline measurement, etc etc. I could also mention that along the way, many of the principles and practices of PL as a writing style have since been found to be inapplicable in some circumstances.

So what is left that is truly PL.? Probably just the original intent of making written information clear for readers. How ironic that the very term we use to describe a desirable outcome of clarity should itself turn out to be misleading. Therein lies an interesting insight about the nature of language that no amount of clear writing will scrub away.

All this makes the establishment in Washington recently of a Centre for Plain Language somewhat anachronistic (except perhaps in Washington DC).

Later this month the Centre is having a welcome discussion on the ‘Research, Evidence, and Tools for Action’ needed to promote PL! Many of the people involved in this worthy organization not only know better than to claim that good communication is just about words but have contributed significantly to the research which has demonstrated this, which makes the choice of name for the centre odder still.

Perhaps the best way to end this little rant is to take a passage from Orwell’s seminal essay of 1946, substituting the phrase ‘plain’ for Orwell’s ‘democracy’:

In the case of a word like plain, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a [document] plain we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of [document] claim that it is a plain [document], and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. (With apologies and thanks to George Orwell.)