Using plain English is a key skill in modern communications. But what does plain English involve? And what does a proofreader need to know about it?
In this post, we explain the basics of plain English for proofreaders.
What Is Plain English?
In layman’s terms, plain English means… well, layman’s terms. It refers to using language that is clear, concise, and easily understood by a wide range of audiences.
Some of the key features of plain English therefore include:
- Everyday language – Plain English uses everyday terms, avoiding jargon and other technical language unless strictly necessary (and defining any unusual terms clearly when they are used). For instance most people know what a “heart attack” is, but only specialists will know what a writer means if they use the term “myocardial infarction.” The most important factor here is that the language will be familiar to the audience.
- Concision – Sentences of more than 15 to 20 words can be difficult to follow, so succinct writing is key for clarity. This typically means favoring the active voice where possible, cutting repetition and redundancies, and avoiding unnecessary modifiers and hedging language. It is also good to keep paragraphs short, as big blocks of text can be off-putting.
- Varied sentence lengths – Writing made up entirely of long or short sentences is difficult to read, so it is best to vary sentence length.
- A clear structure – As well as writing clear, plain English advocates often advise using structure and presentations to help orient the reader:
- Clear headings and other navigation aids (e.g., a table of contents, page numbers, hyperlinks for web content) help readers find the information they need quickly.
- Foregrounding key details before explaining them can help readers to follow the ideas set out (e.g., using topic sentences to introduce what each paragraph will address).
- Lists and regular summaries of key details can help people absorb important information quickly, even when skim reading.
When proofreading plain English, then, you should keep the issues above in mind.
Plain English or Simplified English?
It is important, especially when editing, to remember that “plain English” doesn’t necessarily mean “simple English.” These are slightly different concepts!
- Plain English is about communicating clearly with a wide audience. This may mean using everyday language rather than jargon where possible, but it shouldn’t usually require simplifying the ideas communicated.
- Simple English refers to forms of simplified English designed for people with specific needs, such as children or people learning English as a second language. Content written in simple English will also often simplify the concepts discussed, such as on the Simple English Wikipedia. In other cases, a version of simplified English is tailored to a specific set of users, such as with the Simplified Technical English used in various technical fields.
As a proofreader or editor, you may come across documents written in “plain” or “simple” English. But the requirements of each are often different. It is thus important to be clear about what your client is asking for before you start working.
Plain English Advocacy
Many people have campaigned for the use of plain language. This includes dedicated groups like PLAIN (the Plain Language Action And Information Network), who campaigned for the introduction of the 2010 Plain Writing Act in the US, as well as companies that offer training services on how to write in plain English. It also includes individuals who have advocated for plain language in their own fields. Many professional and government groups now offer plain English resources for writers, too, encouraging clear communication with the public.
As a proofreader, you may thus need to check whether your client is using a specific form of plain English. For instance, the Plain English Campaign’s advice on clear writing is slightly different to the style recommended by PLAIN. As a result, you would want to check the relevant style guide before making changes to a document.
However, if a client simply asks for help with “plain English” and does not specify a style, the general principles we’ve laid out above are a good place to start.
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