What is “plain English”? Why should you use it?

PlainEnglishwithTDIn last week’s edition of Plain English, I outlined some of the problems that the use of legalese creates, and argued that the use of plain language allows for much more effective communication. Many of you, however, may still be unsure about what exactly plain language, or plain English, is.

There are many definitions of plain English. This one, from the Oxford Guide to Plain English, focuses on its purpose:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.”

So, writing in plain English means writing in a way that can be understood the first time by the person who is reading your document. It involves communication that is as clear and direct as the circumstances allow.

And what is plain English not? It is not a more basic, or a “dumber”, way of writing. It does not involve the use of slang or colloquial language. It may involve expressing yourself simply, but it is not simplistic. It can be as formal or as informal as the situation demands. Think about the way you would talk to someone if you were both in the same room and you wanted them to understand you—that’s probably pretty close to plain English!

Secondly, it is not a shortcut. Do not think that drafting a document in plain English will take you any less time, or care and attention, than a document drafted using legalese. In fact, expressing the kind of complex concepts that lawyers have to deal with in plain language can often be a very challenging task. But it is what we must do if we want to communicate effectively with our clients, colleagues, and decision-makers.

Thirdly, plain English writing (and speaking) need not be devoid of style. It is not necessarily boring to write in a way that ensures your audience doesn’t have to read a sentence several times to comprehend what you mean, or run to a dictionary to understand complex or obscure words. In a later post in this series, I’ll be sharing some examples of elegant and exciting plain English writing but, for now, trust me when I say that it is possible to write well in plain English, and for that piece of writing to be a joy to read.

You should take the effort to write in plain English because it is your job, as a lawyer, to communicate effectively. Your audience will thank you for making their life a little easier, and because they will be able to understand the document you have prepared. You will also reveal yourself to be a clear thinker and someone with the ability to present complicated concepts in a simple and comprehensible way, which is a very valuable skill indeed. Finally, keep in mind that writing that is clearer, and more understandable, is ultimately more persuasive too.

Remember that horrible legalese sentence from last week’s post?

“As stated heretofore, the landlord’s conduct created, caused, and resulted in serious bodily harm and massive injuries, to wit: a broken and mangled left leg, lacerations to the aforementioned leg, and several broken digits on the foot attached to said leg, in witness whereof was the spouse of the injured party.”

Legal-Writing-and-Professional-CommunicationsLet me finish off by presenting you with a plain English alternative:

As stated, the landlord inflicted serious injuries on the tenant. The injuries included a broken left leg, lacerations to that leg, and several broken toes on the left foot. The tenant’s spouse was witness to the incident.”

Now that’s an improvement, isn’t it?

(Tennille Duffy is part of the faculty on


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