Putting it plainly

Few English words tumble from the tongue as musically as bafflegab. A satisfying mouthful of consonants, the term was invented in 1952 by Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the United States Chamber of Commerce, to describe the impenetrable language of an order issued by the Office of Price Stabilization. Smith, later awarded a plaque for his nifty new word, felt that only a new term would do to convey the pricing document’s special blend of "incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity and complexity."

Today, though bafflegab is still with us, it is slowly but surely being wrestled to the sidelines by its nemesis, plain language. Over the past couple of decades, plain language—language that speaks to its audience clearly, concisely and directly—has gained a toehold in workplace writing, especially in the legal, financial and government sectors. The reason is simple: where bafflegab obfuscates, plain language communicates.

What plain language isn’t

First, let’s dispel some myths about plain language. Here are the top three held to by writers who barricade themselves behind bureaucratese.

Myth 1: Plain language equals dull writing. Not so. The plain in plain language doesn’t mean boring or ordinary, as in a plain doughnut or plain Jane. It means clear and direct, as in the plain truth. The fact is, plain language is more concrete, lively and readable than wordier styles.

Myth 2: Plain language dilutes content. Many fear that simple words and short sentences will dumb down a complex message. Nothing could be further from the truth. Plain language is the best and sometimes the only way to communicate complex ideas to a general audience, hence its growing popularity in fields like law, health care and securities.

Myth 3: Writers who use plain language risk insulting educated, literate readers. This is an empty worry. Can you imagine any reader of a government brochure, user manual or company prospectus throwing the document aside and exclaiming, "I refuse to read this! It’s far too clear"? No one, regardless of reading level, likes to work unnecessarily to extract meaning from a document.

What plain language is

Plain language is all about the reader. Documents written in plain language are planned, drafted, edited and laid out to meet the reader’s needs, not the writer’s. All too often writers are self-centred; they adopt a style that satisfies something in themselves. They may want to impress. They may think verbose, inflated writing is somehow more "official." They may even be unsure of their message and hope that big words and sprawling sentences will camouflage their vagueness. The point is, writers who focus on their own needs leave their readers wanting.

If we could reduce plain language to a motto, it would be "Know your readers." Why are they reading the document? What is their reading level? How well do they know the subject? Answering those questions, then choosing structure, vocabulary and style accordingly, is the only way to tailor a document to its audience.

Plain language pointers

Be concise

Exercise what Thomas Jefferson called "the most valuable of all talent, that of never using two words where one will do."

Shrink connectors:

  • for the purpose of becomes for
  • on account of the fact that becomes because

Use adjectives and adverbs:

  • of a scientific nature becomes scientific
  • in a professional manner becomes professionally

Avoid redundancies:

  • repeat again becomes repeat
  • large in size becomes large

Use simple words

Winston Churchill once said, "Short words are best, and the old words when short are best of all." (Politicians weren’t always the masters of bafflegab we have come to expect today.) When writing in plain language, resist the allure of flowery, multisyllabic words. And avoid jargon, which carries the clogging power of trans fat.

  • significant becomes big, large
  • disseminate becomes send out
  • interface with becomes talk, contact, meet
  • achieve cost savings becomes save money

Avoid negatives

Negative structures, those built around not, are longer and harder to understand than positive structures. Be especially ruthless with two or three negatives in a row.

  • not often becomes rarely
  • does not have becomes lacks
  • not until becomes only when

Use concrete words

Words that create pictures are easier to understand than abstractions.

  • written analysis becomes report
  • nourishment becomes apple, sushi
  • instrument of correspondence becomes letter, email

Avoid weak verbs

Verbs that express clear, precise actions are easier to understand than vague, actionless verbs. Transform weak verbs like be, have, do and make whenever you can.

  • have the ability to becomes can
  • do an analysis of becomes analyse
  • make a recommendation about becomes recommend

Word choice, which we’ve looked at here, is a key ingredient in the recipe for plain language. But there are others. Techniques like keeping sentences and paragraphs short, providing familiar examples, organizing content to meet readers’ needs and using illustrations and graphic aids are just as important in making documents clear and readable.

Paradoxically, there is nothing simple about writing in plain language. That’s why bafflegab still permeates many workplaces: for many, it’s a familiar and easy lingo. But it’s a lingo that fails to deliver. George Orwell said it best in his famous 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language": ". . . ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself . . . ."

Do we need a more convincing reason for putting it plainly?

Copyright notice for Peck’s English Pointers

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

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