The Plain English Movement

and

Present-day English Registers

Dale Barleben

Copyright 2003

You always write it’s bombing, bombing, bombing. It’s not bombing! It’s air support! (Colonel Opfer in Crystal 176).

We lawyers do not write plain English. We use eight words to say what could be said in two. We use arcane phrases to express commonplace ideas. Seeking to be precise, we become redundant. Seeking to be cautious, we become verbose. Our sentences twist on, phrase within clause within clause, glazing the eyes and numbing the minds of our readers. The result is a writing style that has, according to one critic, four outstanding characteristics. It is "(1) wordy, (2) unclear, (3) pompous, and (4) dull" (Wydick 1).

The Complexity of English

Specific language registers in English often confound those not versed in that specific register. Moreover, English generally has the propensity to borrow words from other languages and to produce new words from myriad sources, whether combining native and non-native words or simply by morphologically changing those words already in present lexicon through affixation, compounding or functional shifts, to name only a few such methods. In some ways, this creates a flexible language with a multiplicity of options to communicate meaning; in others, it becomes convoluted and imprecise. Richard Wydick notes this problem, above, when referring to legal discourse. Yet it is not only legal language that offends notions of clarity and conciseness. Jargon, in Present-day English (PDE), has infiltrated most modes of communication be they political, scientific or media. Euphemism allows deception; impenetrability allows elitism. This article addresses a specific reaction to many of these complexity problems: the Plain English Movement. In doing so, it canvasses the emergence of the movement and the process of evaluating specific registers of English as candidates for reform. The discussion then focuses, ultimately, on legal discourse as an illustrative example of the gravity of these problems and what can be done to help correct many of these complexity problems.

The Emergence of a Movement

The Plain English Movement started with organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English which, in the early 1970s, passed resolutions dealing with "dishonest and inhumane uses of language and literature by advertisers" and "semantic distortion by public officials, candidates for office, political commentators, and all those who transmit through the mass media" (Crystal 176). The resolutions were aimed at raising awareness of these problems within the classroom environment. But educational institutions were not the only participants in the push for revision; government agencies, law societies, scientific associations and public interest groups all joined the movement toward less ornamented and complex language usage. In some instances, like many business contracts or legal arguments, language can be used to mislead; in other instances, like medical or government publications, the language intended to aid, in effect, becomes ineffectual due to its impenetrability. In 1979, for example, the UK launched its "Plain English Campaign" by a "ritual shredding of government forms in Parliament Square" (Crystal 377). In large part, the Plain English Movement attempted to narrow the rift between the everyday public and its institutions. With reference to positive changes in the USA, England and Australia Yon Maley notes, "the plain language movement has made substantial progress in the simplification and reorganization of many business and government documents" (48). Yet saying that the "movement" is responsible for change is somewhat misleading, as there is no central organization responsible for the overseeing and implementation of plain language programs. While lobbying is essential to pointing to the inherent complexity problems in English, it is the organizations themselves that must undertake reform. With this in mind, the examination now turns to some of the institutions and their specific English registers.

Science and Technology

The explosion of scientific knowledge since the Renaissance has generated an accompanying flood of words into the English Lexicon. As Crystal tells us, Biology itself, with its hierarchical system of naming and classification, creates complex levels of identification only exacerbated by the reliance on Latin (372). Precise taxonomy requires precise lexicon. Yet this very need for precision creates confusion for all but the most versed biologists in each specific field. Phylum, class, order, family, genus and species each delineate an organism’s taxonomy. In this system, then, Latin borrowings denote a single organism through six levels of naming.

But the trend begun in biology has bled into many other scientific and technological fields. As computers are ever changing, upgrading and touching new aspects of human existence, technological terms like gigabyte, modem and internet become commonplace, while previously commonplace terms like port, mouse and spam take on newly specific meaning. New technology creates need for new words; it also causes semantic change in existing ones.

Perhaps some of the most daunting jargon for laypersons is medical language. When patients visit their doctors they are usually already anxious about their ailments. Facing the formidable language used by some doctors only exacerbates the problem. As Tom McArthur puts it, "while doctors may easily understand bilateral perorbital haematoma a black eye, agrypnia insomnia, cephalalgia a headache, and emesis vomiting, patients rarely if ever understand such terms" (544). There are, however, ways in which the scientific community has begun using Plain English to combat such problems. The section on reforms that follows the remaining survey of English registers addresses these solutions.

Teaching, Education and Academic Work

The Plain English Movement has, at least in a prescriptive sense, set down numerous models for those wishing to write more clearly. Both the National Council of Teachers and numerous training organizations from various disciplines participate in educating individuals to the benefits of clear communication. As Joseph M. Williams describes, plain English tutelage is both accessible and fairly simple:

Those who must write clear, readable sentences now have access to about 90% of everything they need to know to write those sentences. That knowledge can be encapsulated in three principles: (1) Express crucial actions as verbs; (2) locate the participants of those actions in the subjects of the verbs; (3) arrange information in those sentences so that older, more familiar precedes newer, less familiar. (166)

While teaching clear writing and its benefits remain important aspects of many disciplines, higher education itself often disregards plain English in favour of discourse which seems impenetrable to non-academic persons. In driving toward new, useful knowledge, academic jargon, even in English studies, becomes intellectual solipsism. This is, of course academic jargon itself, attempting to underline the problem of academic writers becoming less and less useful to society and more and more a group of individuals talking, as it were, to themselves. Perhaps postsecondary learning might benefit from a return to plain English principles in academic discourse both at undergraduate and graduate levels. But while teaching might be most closely associated with changing communication style, there are many disciplines outside academia that have fostered plain English in their registers. This examination will now turn to two specific examples as foundational leaders of reform.

Business

One leading reformer of language is business. Yet the impetus to reform seems to come both internally and externally in this register. Internally, businesses in the twentieth century faced communication problems both with other businesses and with their own employees as contractual obligations became increasingly complex. Joint ventures, mergers and the onslaught of subsidiaries became an administrative nightmare for many organizations though the 1970s and 80s. The result was a paring down of hierarchical organizational structure as well as the movement toward simpler relations between employer and employee (Jereb). Externally, businesses are constantly under pressure to simplify channels to customers. Private contractual relations between individuals and banks, insurance companies and vendors each require specificity and exactness in their formulation; yet, as almost anyone involved in a mortgage or insurance contract will attest, the verbosity and convoluted clauses present within these types of contracts do little to foster the Plain English Movement. Business, then, because of their superior resources and knowledge of contractual obligations pose a threat to the average consumer whose financial and mental capacities are usually far more limited, thus leaving them vulnerable to sometimes unscrupulous suasion.

Some institutions have used specific agencies that specialize in document design to help streamline business procedures. While the majority of contractual obligations arise from private relations, they usually entail at least some legal drafting to put these relationships in print. A business sells a product or a service, but few businesses operate without written contracts. Instead, the business will usually hire lawyers to provide "iron clad" contracts for them in which they can, once signed by a consumer, demand the performance of the contract. This, of course, leads to the final section in this survey, which scrutinizes the law and its interaction with plain English.

Law

Perhaps no other register than law encapsulates the problems of communicating both precisely and simply at the same time. As Crystal remarks, "any campaign for Plain English will find much of its fuel here" (374). Laws need to be precise in order that individuals governed by these laws might know their legal rights and responsibilities. Yet in order to truly understand these rights and obligations, legal language must not confuse and confound its readers, as is so often the case. John Gibbons explains this paradox when he comments, "Given the detailed, explicit nature of much legislation, a change in words can result in a change of meaning and consequent uncertainty. More general rules would be simpler and more comprehensible but there are attendant problems of vagueness and applicability…" (49). There is also the problem of attempting to cover all possible contingencies, as McArthur notes:

Lawyers generally argue that the conventions and complexities of legal prose ensure that all possible contingencies are covered and ambiguities removed from documents on which legal decisions must rest. Critics reply that ‘legalese’ makes lawyers necessary as interpreters as will as counsellors, may obscure the implications of contracts and other documents, and often worries people unnecessarily. (595)

To say that historically, legal language has tended toward the complex rather than the simple is a vast understatement. Yet this is also true of scientific language, as illustrated above. While few would argue that medical language is intended to mislead, perhaps more would accept that legal langue does so. But perhaps, as noted above, the impetus for such conclusions should come from the dealings of business as much as it should from the dealings of law.

The Law Reform Commission of Victoria, Australia, however, nicely summarizes many of the leading causes for complexity in legal drafting style:

Each of these highlights the engrained adherence to complex legal diction, which in turn creates conflict between those in favour of, and those opposed to, reforming legal drafting style.

Proponents of the existing complexity within legal discourse argue that simplifying legal language, aside from the threat of doing away with the legal profession (a most attractive end to many), will lead to an increase in lawsuits over ambiguous, imprecise terminology. Yet as Crystal notes, "there has been no sudden increase in litigation as a result of the emergence of plain English materials" (377). While many lawyers defend entrenched, traditional terminology in the lexicon as a matter of prestige, as many now advocate for plain English in legal discourse as a matter of efficiency.

Reforms

Reform in scientific writing has taken a step toward Plain English usage, though many scientific registers remain jargon-ridden. Recognizing the need for precision in scientific lexicon, however, need not mean a simultaneous reliance on complexity. While many authors of scientific treatises create grammatical structures that rival the complexities of the concepts they describe, some more recent work has embraced the move to plain English. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time explains extremely complex concepts of twentieth-century physics, yet does so in a manner accessible to readers with little or no training in the discipline (Crystal 373). The physicist used grammatical structure that adhered to principles of plain English to describe the properties he studied. His writing style was lauded both within the scientific community and elsewhere for its clarity, usefulness and simplicity – not an easy task when describing quantum physics. Writing in a simpler fashion, for Hawking, was crucial to his ideas proliferating outside specifically scientific registers. Yet whether Plain English might allow the precision necessary within the scientific community itself is arguable.

Regarding teaching and academic writing, there are numerous tools now available to help the movement to Plain English. There are myriad writing manuals in as many English registers. Richard C. Wydick’s Plain English for Lawyers, for example, does not touch substantive issues of jurisprudence, but rather explains principles of clear writing for those engaged in the legal process. Advice like "do not use Lawyerisms" help lawyers recognize that "words like aforementioned, whereas, res gestae, and hereinafter" end up giving "writing a legal smell" while doing little to create meaning in the sentence structure (57). Yet while guidebooks to clear writing might aid those who search them out, those not keen to rework their writing style can remain untouched by plain English principles. In this situation, the computer technology that, in one sense, has contributed to the complexity of English lexicon, in another sense, has worked to simplify English grammar (Miller). "Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level" and "Flesch Reading Ease" tests are now standard components in most word-processing software. These tools gage the writer’s text complexity by indicating the grade level to which the writing is accessible (1-12) and the "readability" of the text (a score out of 100). Low grade level scores do not necessarily mean poor writing, and high readability scores generally indicate clearer, more understandable prose.

In the business world, many governments have interceded to legislate for Plain English usage. In countries like Australia, companies can face legal sanction should they be found to have intentionally misled consumers with contracts that contain confusing, unintelligible language. It seems that some of the most successful implementations of plain English in business come when the state actually legislates the necessity for plain English in contractual documents in order to protect the public interest (Law Reform Commission of Victoria).

In the legal register, court decisions have also influenced, or perhaps penalized, lawyers for their impenetrable language. As McArthur notes, "in 1983, an English court ordered a law firm to pay £93,000 damages for unintentionally misleading a client by using ‘obscure’ legal language in a letter of advice…" (595). Here, unlike the business example, the requirement of intention is even absent, sending a strong message to lawyers to be more aware of the legal drafting problem.

But there is still a long road ahead of those who draft legal documents, as exemplified by the following example. In his book, Simplify Legal Writing, Elliott L. Biskind states that, "sentences unmistakably clear in meaning and in logical development of facts to support legal argument or opinion, are the requisite of legal writing which commands attention by its ‘elegance’" (2). The sheer incompatibility between what he tries to say and the style he uses to say it proves hilariously ironic, especially with reference to the title of his book. A classic run-on, his sentence is also guilty of improper comma use, unnecessary verbiage and stilted language that completely undermine his premise of "elegance" favouring, instead, ineloquence. Perhaps Gertrude Block’s observation that "law students are often assigned casebook reading containing court opinions that are badly written" (73) might also be extended to poorly written writing guides. Perhaps further reforms are necessary to curtail complexity in English.

Further Reforms?

Whether scientific, educational, business, legal or another English register, the need for plain English in a culture of increasing complexity has never been greater. Many countries including the United States, England, Australia and some European nations have implemented programs promoting plain English usage (Gibbons 48). Canada has also instituted plain English programs through its department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship. The bibliographical report it published in September of 1992 through its Plain Language Resource Centre details myriad publications available at the Centre. General guides, books on drafting, legislation, legal proceedings, research and design are only a few of the categories mentioned. But Canada has not yet implemented any legislation requiring plain English. In the United States, "Twenty-eight states have passed legislation to control the readability and, therefore, the usability of life, property and casualty, and health insurance contracts" (Bowen 158). Whether Canada and other English speaking countries will follow such legislative efforts is unclear, but as the English language grows in complexity, laws protecting individuals from the use of misleading language might be just on the horizon.

For Further Reading

General Texts on Plain English

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Jereb, Barry. "Plain English on the Plant Floor." Visible Language. 20.2 (1986): 219 –225.

Lass, Roger ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language Vol. IV. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Miller, Lance A. "Computers for Composition: A Stage Model Approach to Helping." Visible Language. 20.2 (1986): 188 – 218.

Williams, Joseph M. "Plain English: The Remaining Problems." Visible Language. 20.2 (1986): 166 – 173.

Texts on Plain English and Law

Appleman, J. A. "‘Jabberwocky’ Revisited – Or, What does My Policy Cover." Insurance Law Journal (May 1977) : 279 – 284.

Australia. Law Reform Commission of Victoria. Plain English and the Law. Report No. 9. Melbourne: F. D. Atkinson Government Printer, 1987.

Biskind, Elliott L. Simplify Legal Writing. New York: Arco Publishing Company Inc., 1975.

Block, Gertrude. Effective Legal Writing. New York: The Foundation Press, Inc., 1992.

Bowen, Betsy A. "Analysing the Carious Approaches of Plain Language Laws." Visible Language. 20.2 (1986): 155 – 165.

 

Haggard, Thomas R. The Lawyer’s Book of Rules for Effective Legal Writing. Littleton, Colorado: Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1997.

Lazzaro, Giorgio. "Law and Ordinary Language." Law and Language. eds. Anna Pintore and Mario Jori. Liverpool: Deborah Charles Publications, 1997. 175 – 209.

Maley, Yon. "The Language of the Law." Language and the Law. ed. John Gibbons. New York: Longman, 1994. 11 – 50.

Weinberg, Stev. "Plain Language Insurance?" Linguistic Reporter. 21.4 (1979) : 3, 8.

Wilson, Carol Ann. Plain Language Pleadings. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Wydick, Richard C. Plain English for Lawyers. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1994.