Is plain English enough?

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From government agencies to engineers and everyday service providers – everyone today understands the benefits of writing in plain English.

You’ve heard me bang on about plain English before. “Keep your sentences short. Use simple words that most people will understand. And write in an active voice.”

But just using plain English sometimes is not enough. If you’ve lost sight of who your reader is, even plain English can confuse.

The problem is: English is not plain – it’s a very complex language. The multiple meanings of words can alter the interpretation of a sentence, even when written plainly.

Let me elaborate.

Think about the word ‘significant’ for example. What do you think of when I write: The cost of each component in my phone is significant. I could be saying:

  • The cost of each component in my phone is large (but with only a few components, it doesn’t make much of an impact).

  • The cost of each component in my phone is important (and because there are so many components, it makes a big impact).

It might be more accurate for me to write:

  • The cost of each component in my phone is both large and important.

It’s not quite as ‘plain’ but it’s more accurate.

The tip of an iceberg can be a significant sight to behold. But it’s what lies beneath the surface that’s of real importance to a ship’s captain.

Recently, tennis champion, Serena Williams, had a significant on-court meltdown. But is that an accurate description of what actually happened? Sometimes plain English needs added detail to give the full picture.

Because English is complex, ambiguity is always a risk when we write. The key is to take care. When you become a more careful writer, you become a better writer.