Plain Language in Plain English: a review

Review by Mike Unwalla.

Cheryl Stephens (editor), 2010. Plain Language in Plain English. Vancouver, Canada: 204 pages including appendices. ISBN 978-0-557-53787-7.

Initially, I did not like Plain Language in Plain English because of a conflict between the title and a comment from Stephens. On page 4, Stephens writes, "The suggestions we make here apply to information materials written for the general public. This book is not written for the general public, so don't expect me to follow my own advice here. 'Do as I say, not as I do.'"

I do not understand why Stephens does not obey the advice that she gives. All content can be written plainly. Much of the documentation from TechScribe is very technical. However, the language is plain.

Plain Language in Plain English has 24 chapters that are organized into six parts. A set of resources is at the end of the book.

Many authors helped with the book. Therefore, some information is repeated more than is necessary. Some related information is in different parts of the book. For example, the pronoun 'they' as an alternative to 'he' and 'she' is discussed in chapter 13. However, a better location is in 'Guidelines for gender-neutral writing' in chapter 18. An index can help readers to find information. But, Plain Language in Plain English does not have an index.

Plain Language in Plain English explains how to design and how to write a document. The book deals with topics such as audience analysis, readers who have cognitive impairments, literacy, international readers, document structure, gender-neutral writing, and usability testing. From the title, I expected the book to be primarily about language, not about these other topics.

Although much content is good, and some content is excellent, Plain Language in Plain English has the following problems:

Some content is not necessary

Chapter 1 defines plain language. "Plain language means text that is understandable." The first section of chapter 1 explains that plain language cannot be separated from the audience. Text that is clear to one audience is not always clear to a different audience. Therefore, audience analysis is important. (Chapter 3 is about audience analysis.)

The remaining two sections of chapter 1 show a typical a problem with Plain Language in Plain English. Approximately five pages tell me about the importance of plain language and the benefits of plain language. However, this information is not necessary. I bought the book. I know the benefits of plain language. I want to learn how to write plain language. Too much of the content is unnecessary background information.

Some content is not clear

Technical writers know the importance of the audience. I am happy to see that experts from the plain-language profession agree that a document cannot be fully evaluated without knowing about the people who read the document.

Chapter 3 explains that many documents have more than one audience. For example, possibly a report from a company must be for shareholders, the chief operating officer, and industry regulators. Then, the authors write:

"But first you should determine which is your:

In the section 'The most significant audience', the authors try to explain the difference between the 'primary audience' and the 'most significant audience'. The authors write, "The main users or the primary audience are not always the readers you must target. Sometimes, the real purpose of the document changes the target."

The authors do not define the term 'most significant audience'. The authors give an example, and then write, "In this case, who is the most significant reader – the subject [a person], the photographer, the photo editor, the lawyer, or the judge? Whoever makes the decision – and it is seldom the writer – must weigh many factors." The example does not help me to decide who the 'most significant audience' is.

I do not understand the difference between the 'primary audience' and the 'most significant audience'. If 'the main users or the primary audience are not always the readers you must target', why are those people identified as the 'primary audience'?

The glossary is no help. The terms 'audience', 'primary audience', 'secondary audience', 'intermediary audience', and 'most significant audience' are not in the glossary.

Some content is not sufficient

Although most of the guidelines are good, some guidelines do not have sufficient details. Some of the guidelines are vague instructions to 'think about this' or 'consider that', as the following examples show:

Plain Language in Plain English explains that a document cannot be evaluated for plain language without reference to the audience. However, for all audiences, Kohl shows that some grammatical structures are clearer than other grammatical structures. Plain Language in Plain English does not give sufficient information about particular grammar and vocabulary that helps to make text clear.

Some content is not correct

Some of the guidelines are not always correct, as the following examples show:

Some content is excellent

Despite my criticisms, Plain Language in Plain English has some useful and interesting content.

The phrase 'red Corvette' is more precise than 'vehicle'. Usually, a precise word is better than a general word. Frequently, vague words do not have much meaning. The authors give examples of vague words such as 'aspect', 'situation', and 'system'. A good test is to draw a picture of the word. Usually, if you cannot draw a picture of the word, the word is too vague.

Definitions help readers to understand the technical words that are in a document. 'Simplified: how to write definitions' has an excellent explanation.

In chapter 20, the authors explain that a readability formula can help to evaluate a text. However, the authors explain that readability formulae are not always sufficient. For example, unclear text can have a good readability score. A different method to evaluate text is to use 'literacy task analysis', which the authors explain in chapter 21. With literacy task analysis, an evaluator finds features that have an effect on readability. For example, the following features have an effect on readability:

Before I read Plain Language in Plain English, I did not know about literacy task analysis. Literacy task analysis is interesting because technical writers use task analysis. However, I do not know how useful literacy task analysis is. Literacy task analysis was developed in 2005 by Evetts and Gauthier.

Plain language is applicable to spoken presentations. When you speak, do not use negative prefixes. Use 'not' instead of a prefix such as 'un' or 'il'. Possibly, listeners will hear the prefixes as 'uh' or 'um'. The authors give the following example. Do not say, "That would be illogical". Possibly, listeners will hear, "That would be, uh, logical". Instead, say, "That would not be logical".

See also

Articles about language

Reviews of books that are about language

International English pages on the TechScribe website

Writing for people who do not read easily: workshop review

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