This late night appearance on the Tessa Dunlop show yesterday (once I'd raced home from the Festival Hall) topped and tailed my fortnight of press and radio interviews. That's 18 shows 'in the can' (ooh get me and my media talk). The night before (Thursday) I took part in a live on-air three-way chat on Radio City Liverpool with presenter Pete Price and Marie Claire, press officer for Plain English Campaign. The topics of discussion ranged from my book to my police career to swearing to punctuation but, running like a spinal chord throughout, was the subject of plain English. It's something I've championed for many years and have mentioned on this blog more than a couple of times. So I will take this opportunity (as I have some newer readers) to once again dispel some myths.
Firstly, plain English is not 'dumbed-down' English. It's just clear English. It means writing in a style appropriate for the anticipated readers. It means writing in a way that the average reader will understand it after a single reading. It means choosing clear, unambiguous words that promote understanding without changing or losing the meaning of what you're saying.
Secondly, it does not suck the joy out of English. I delight in my native language. I love discovering new words. But, like any skill, you adapt it to suit your audience. The way that I would phrase an informational leaflet is very different from the way I'd write a poem.
Thirdly, it does not ban big or difficult words. Hell no. It does the reader good to have their vocabulary expanded so you can use as many big words as you like provided (a) you explain what the word means at its first appearance, or (b) you do not let that word change the meaning of the sentence. For example, I began my introduction to Joined-Up Thinking with the line: 'An interesting and serendipitous thing happened to me a couple of years ago.' Now, if the reader doesn't know what serendipitous means, they have two choices here. They can go and look it up. Or they can ignore it and carry on reading. Not knowing that single word will not affect their understanding of the sentence. All they've missed is a tiny nuance i.e. the fact that the interesting thing was the result of a 'happy accident'. Of course, you don't drop an unfamiliar word into every sentence as that would soon become tiresome. Variety is the spice of life after all. Use a combination of short and longer sentences (although try not to exceed 20 words per sentence). And don't be afraid to write as you speak. I started that last sentence with 'and', didn't I? Horror! Sorry, but that's how we speak and I'll be damned if some 18th century scholar is going to tell me that I can't start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'. The rule is nonsense, cooked up by people who wanted English to follow the rules of the divine language Latin. In fact, I believe that there is no grammar book that says you can't start a sentence this way (although you may want to try to prove me wrong). The Bible does it. Shakespeare and Dickens did it. And I will do it too, thank you very much.
So remember the Five Cs. Plain English is:
- Correct - Use the right words, grammar and punctuation;
- Clear - Any reasonable person should be able to understand what you’ve written after one reading;
- Concise - A lot of people will be reluctant readers. Their first reaction will be to look at the amount they have to read. Keep it short but not abrupt;
- Conversational - Use everyday words in an everyday style. That doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’. Write as if you are sitting opposite a group of your readers. Write the words that you’d use if you were talking to them;
- Considerate - Think about your readers’ needs before your own. Only use jargon if you are absolutely sure that all of your readers will understand it.
There. You've been told.