What is plain English? What it is not is only too obvious, and can be read in all British bureaucratic communication, business letters, government departments, and sadly, much of modern English journalism – anywhere where there is linguistic contact with the public. Applications, safety instructions, official letters, licences, applications for licences or passports, insurance policies, hire-purchase documents, guarantees, instruction booklets for use of electric or other machinery etc. should be presented clearly, using language that people are certain to understand. With few exceptions, they are not:
Take, for instance, this real letter about house rents:-
“Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing to inform you that the City Council at their meeting on 25 July, 1979, in accordance with the duty imposed by Section 113(A) of the Housing Act, 1957 to review housing rents from time to time and to make such changes, either of the rents generally or of particular rents as circumstances may require, decided that the net rents (i.e. exclusive of rates) of all Council-owned dwellings should continue to be related to Gross Rateable Values and adopted (sic) a general basis of 130% of Gross Rateable Values as the level at which the net rents should be set.”
If, after reading this gobbledegook you have found yourself out of breath, pick yourself up and remember that clear language does not simply benefit the reader; it can also save time (and money). Many applications are returned filled in wrongly because the instructions were complicated, complex and ambiguous? In the same way, most new automobile booklets are glossy, handsome – and gobbledegook. All instruction manuals for domestic electric appliances are written in a language (or several languages) not known to Man. There is no need for this.
When reporting an event, journalism does not require you to name the day, date, year etc., as in “On Saturday, the 9th of May, 2010 etc. etc.” For reasons of clarity, and a saving of printer’s ink, all the reader needs is “on 9 May the vicar presented roses to. . .”
If you name a person and his job, do not place a comma between the appointment and the name. Write – “President of the Union Sidney Wabb said”
If you have to mention many percentages in your article, use “per cent” once, in the first paragraph or the title; then use the internationally recognised percentage sign % immediately after the figure, thus: “15% of those registered . . .”
Be careful with your use of metaphor, simile, oxymoron or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print. You may not fully understand it, and the result to the reader may be unreadable. Avoid relative clauses – ‘which is’, ‘who are’ etc.
Never use a long word or phrase when a short one will do. Journalism is not about using the maximum amount of words in order to charge more for your article. Or at least it shouldn’t be. If it is possible to cut a word out, such as the definite article ‘the’, always cut it out. Avoid the complex Continuous tenses. Never use the passive voice when you can use the active. Avoid the use of double or triple negatives, unless you are emphasising that part of your narrative. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a ‘jargon’ word (such as the word ‘given’ used as a noun or ‘across’ as a verb!’ if you can think of an ordinary everyday English equivalent. Don’t use the word “issues” when you mean “problems”. Try by any means to avoid writing politically-correct barbarisms. If they are noticed at all by your reader, they will make them laugh when that was not your intention.
Avoid modifiers of nouns or verbs. Most English nouns or verbs are good and strong anyway, and they do not need intensifiers. For example, what the reader does not need is this kind of thing:
“We really thought that the house lemon mousse was absolutely unique” If something is unique it is unique and that’s that. One cannot modify “unique”. One cannot say something is “almost unique” or “absolutely unique”; also, the adjective “house” is unnecessary. It is obvious that you are writing about a certain place – a restaurant for instance, so therefore any dishes you try must be available in that restaurant. Therefore “house” lemon mouse is redundant. In any case, if you litter a restaurant review with words like “fabulous” and “simply marvellous” and “totally gorgeous” the reader will immediately assume you have been paid to glorify the restaurant. That sort of thing gets a newspaper a bad name.