What does ‘Plain English’ mean?

“Plain English” is both the name of our business and an expression in English. We’ve enjoyed many years of helping language learners upgrade their skills in English, but some members do occasionally ask about our name. In this post, we’ll show you what “Plain English” means and why we chose it as the name of our business.

Meaning of ‘Plain English’

Simply put, to speak in “plain English” is to communicate clearly, without using unnecessary jargon. When speaking in plain English, we don’t follow rigid rules, we don’t try to sound too formal, and we don’t use words that are unnecessarily complex.

When I talk to people about writing, I often encourage them to read their writing out loud. Then I ask them, “Would you ever speak this way?” If the answer is “no,” then the writing is not plain English.

Many writers—both native speakers and language learners—try to sound formal when writing. Even the best speakers sometimes write in an unnatural, forced manner. Plain English is about writing in a way that comfortably and clearly communicates our ideas. It’s no fun reading or listening to overly formal or unnatural language; it only makes sense, then, not to communicate that way.

Here are several ways you can make sure your writing is in plain English:

Use the active voice

Where possible, use the active voice rather than the passive voice. The active voice is often crisp, clear and professional. The active voice also helps us with our goal of communicating clearly: it’s often much easier to understand than the passive voice.

Plain English is not about rigid rules, however. The passive voice is occasionally better, so feel free to use it sparingly.

Still not clear about the difference between the active and passive voice? Check out this guide from Grammarly.

Avoid jargon

Don’t use unnecessary jargon. “Jargon” refers to special words or technical terms that only a small group of people would understand. (The workplace is full of jargon!) It’s okay to use complicated or technical terms if they’re necessary to make your point. But people often use jargon to sound sophisticated or professional. In fact, they just make themselves sound arrogant or confusing.

Speak directly to your audience

Many children learn that “formal” writing should not use words like “we” or “I” or “you.” Perhaps that’s true in the most formal situations. However, if you’re trying to speak clearly, you shouldn’t be afraid of speaking directly to your audience. After all, both the writer and the reader are people. Why should we be afraid of acknowledging that?

Here are a few tips for speaking directly to your audience:

  • If writing for business, you can use “we” to refer to your company or organization.
  • If writing in your own voice, don’t be afraid to refer to yourself as “I” or “me.”
  • Use imperative sentences (like this one!) if you want your reader to do something.
Two people address a large audience in a lecture hall.

Keep it short

It’s easier to listen to, and read, short sentences that communicate a single idea. When speaking in plain English, we want to communicate our ideas, so it only makes sense to keep our sentences relatively short.

That doesn’t mean all “good” language uses short sentences. The opening sentence in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens is 119 words, and I would never argue with a master of the English language. I would point out, however, that most people only remember the first 12 words of that sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Don’t follow all the rules

English is full of grammar rules, and you should follow most of them. But there are a lot of “rules” that are purely a matter of style. And following these rules too rigidly can make your sentences sound unnatural.

Here are a few examples of rules you can break in English:

  • You shouldn’t use contractions. (Don’t worry; everyone does it.)
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. (I like Winston Churchill’s rejoinder to this one).
  • Never start a sentence with “And” or “But.” (Do it: they are great transition words).
  • Don’t split an infinitive by putting a word between “to” and the verb. (It’s often unavoidable.)

Pick the right words

“Pick the right words”: If only it were that easy!

Here’s what I mean by this tip: Use words that your audience will know and understand. What good is the “perfect sentence” if your audience doesn’t understand it?

If your audience is knowledgeable about a topic, then feel free to use more technical vocabulary to address more complex, specialized topics. If your audience’s first language is not English, then try to express your ideas using simpler words. Find common ground by occasionally defining a difficult word if you think your entire audience might not know it.

A woman is clearly confused by a technical book she is reading.

What Plain English is not

Plain English is not over-simplified English and it doesn’t mean “talking down” to your listeners. You never want to speak to your audience like they’re inferior to you or like they’re children, even if they’re not yet perfect in English.

Instead, speaking in plain English is about respect. It’s about making sure your audience understands your point and feels included in the conversation.

Plain English and learning languages

Most language learners struggle to communicate their ideas clearly. They often lose focus by trying to learn as many words as possible or by translating complex ideas from their first language. All too often, this ends in frustration.

You should absolutely develop a rich vocabulary as you progress in English. But to communicate (even in the workplace), you don’t need to sound formal and you don’t need to use obscure words, out-of-date idioms, or advanced techniques. In short, you just need to speak in plain English.

Why I chose the name ‘Plain English’

I chose to name my business “Plain English” because I wanted to help you communicate clearly, without the stress and worry that sometimes goes along with language training. I also practice what I preach. My own writing follows the principles of plain English, not only on this site, but in all areas of my life.

I also can’t lie: the domain name was available!

How you can benefit from learning in plain English

If you’re learning English for business or pleasure, you can benefit from learning in plain English. As language learners, our objective is to communicate our ideas and plain English is all about effective communication.

Here are the ways that we use plain English to help you upgrade your skills:

  • I don’t waste your time teaching you out-of-date idioms, or English expressions that are only rarely used (“raining cats and dogs,” for example).
  • All the English you hear is authentic, real-world English. I read every lesson out loud (they’re audio lessons!), so I make sure they all sound like I’m talking to a friend or a colleague.
  • With more complex ideas, I show you step-by-step how to use the little parts of the language that can help you communicate your ideas more clearly.

Challenge yourself to speak in plain English (or Spanish or Chinese…)

Speaking in plain English is not just about, well, English.

As you were reading this article, did you notice any parallels with your own language? Are there rules in your own language that you can break? Do you often hear people using jargon unnecessarily? Do you ever find yourself complicating your speech unnecessarily? If so, you can apply many of these same plain English principles to your own language.

Got an interesting story? Let us know in the comments below!

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