Plain English

Plain English (or layman's terms) is language that is intended to be clear and concise. It attempts to avoid complex vocabulary. It attempts to be free of clichés and needless technical jargon, and should be appropriate to the audience's developmental or educational level and their familiarity with the topic. The term is commonly used when discussing government or business communication.


The term derives from the 16th-century idiom "in plain English", meaning "in clear, straightforward language".[1] Another name for the term, layman's terms, is derived from the idiom "in layman's terms" which refers to language phrased simply enough that a Layman, or common person, can understand.


United Kingdom

In 1946, writer George Orwell wrote an essay entitled, "Politics and the English Language", where he criticized the dangers of "ugly and inaccurate" contemporary written English. The essay focuses particularly on politics where pacification can be used to mean "...defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets...".

In 1948, HM Treasury asked Sir Ernest Gowers to provide a guide to officials on avoiding pompous and over-elaborate writing. He wrote, "writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer's job is to make his reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely."[2]

Gowers' guide was published as a slim paperback Plain Words, a guide to the use of English in 1948, followed by a sequel The ABC of Plain Words in 1951, and a hardback book combining the best of both, The Complete Plain Words, in 1954 – which has never been out of print since. Gowers argued that legal English was a special case, saying that legal drafting: a science, not an art; it lies in the province of mathematics rather than of literature, and its practice needs long apprenticeship. It is prudently left to a specialised legal branch of the Service. The only concern of the ordinary official is to learn to understand it, to act as interpreter of it to ordinary people, and to be careful not to let his own style of writing be tainted by it...[3]

There is a trend toward plainer language in legal documents. Plain English Campaign has been campaigning since 1979 "against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information." The campaign has helped many government departments and other official organisations with their documents, reports and publications. They believe that everyone should have access to clear and concise information."[4] The 1999 "Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts" regulations mandate "plain and intelligible" language.[5][6]

An inquiry into the 2005 London bombings recommended that emergency services should always use plain English. It found that verbosity can lead to misunderstandings that could cost lives.[7]


The main organisation promoting the use of plain English in Ireland is the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA).[8][9] There is a growing awareness of and interest in using plain English, particularly in the public sector. The Public Sector Reform Plan[10] and the Central Bank's Consumer Protection Code[11] advocate for the use of plain English in the public and financial sectors respectively. The Universal Design guidelines published by the National Standards Authority of Ireland includes plain English guidelines for energy suppliers.[12]

United States

In the US, the plain language movement in government communication started in the 1970s. The Paperwork Reduction Act was introduced in 1976,[13] and in 1978 President Carter issued executive orders intended to make government regulations "cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them."[14] Many agencies now have long-standing policies mandating plain language;[15] in 2010, this was made a federal requirement with the Plain Writing Act.[16][17]

In legal writing, David Mellinkoff, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, is widely credited with singlehandedly launching the plain English movement in American law with the 1963 publication of The Language of the Law.[18][19] In 1977, New York became the first state to pass legislation requiring plain English in consumer contracts and leases.[20] In 1979, Richard Wydick published Plain English for Lawyers. Plain English writing style is now a legal duty for companies registering securities under the Securities Act of 1933, due to rules the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted in 1998.[21] In 2011, PLAIN (Plain Language Action and Information Network) published Federal Plain Language Guidelines.[22]

Linguist and law school professor, Peter Tiersma, wrote an article titled Instructions to jurors: Redrafting California’s jury instructions in The Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics in 2010. He outlines the history of legal trials and how pattern jury instructions were developed in order to create an atmosphere in which jurors are given pertinent information to a case in order to determine factual evidence and guilt of an accused individual. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s in California, a panel comprising judges and lawyers drafted pattern jury instructions.[23]

These standardized jury instructions were problematic, as they were written using technical language rather than in Plain English. In the late 1970s, Robert and Veda Charrow studied jury instructions for comprehensibility, where individuals were asked to verbally summarize pattern jury instructions. The participants accounted for only one-third of pertinent information given in the jury instructions. The Charrows further identified linguistic features of these instructions that made instructions given to member of a jury difficult to understand. After revising the instructions to include a more recognized vocabulary, comprehension rose 47%.

Tiersma provides examples of jury instructions in both Legal English and Plain English. In the Book of Approved Jury Instructions, or BAJI, instructions regarding the care of motorists when operating a motor vehicle read:

BAJI 5.50. Duty of Motorists and Pedestrians Using Public Highway

Every person using a public street or highway, whether as a pedestrian or as a driver of a vehicle, has a duty to exercise ordinary care at all times to avoid placing himself or others in danger and to use like care to avoid an accident from which an injury might result.
A “vehicle” is a device by which any person or property may be propelled, moved, or drawn upon a highway.
A “pedestrian” is any person who is afoot or who is using a means of conveyance propelled by human power other than a bicycle. The word “pedestrian” also includes any person who is operating a self-propelled wheelchair, invalid tricycle, or motorized quadrangle and, by reason of physical disability, is otherwise unable to move about as a pedestrian, as earlier defined.

Tiersma points out several confusing terms and formal jargon used in this definition that would be difficult for jury participants to understand. He highlights "to use like care" as being overly formal and "pedestrian" as being atypically defined including individuals using wheelchairs and "motorized quadrangles." The California Jury Instructions: Criminal or CACI, rework these instructions and read:

CACI 700. Basic Standard of Care

A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.

The CACI instructions are in common language and are more direct. Jury instructions that are more direct have been criticized, saying that utilizing a more recognizable vocabulary would make the instructions less precise in a legal atmosphere.

See also


Citation footnotes

Click on the hyperlink to see the full citation.

  1. Ammer 1997
  2. Gowers 1954, "Prologue".
  3. Gowers 1954, "Chapter 2".
  4. PEUK
  5. OFT 1999: "A term is open to challenge if it could put the consumer at a disadvantage because he or she is not clear about its meaning – even if its meaning could be worked out by a lawyer."
  6. BBC News
  7. The Telegraph
  8. "Simply put. Plain English editing, writing and training service provided by the National Adult Literacy Agency". National Adult Literacy Agency.
  9. "NALA's Plain English resources page". National Adult Literacy Agency.
  10. "Public Sector Reform Plan, section 1.2 Improving Customer Experience". Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
  11. "Consumer Protection Code, section 4.1" (PDF). Central Bank.
  12. "NSAI Develop World's First Standard on Universal Design". National Standards Authority of Ireland. Archived from the original on 2017-04-25. Retrieved 2017-04-24.
  13. Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995
  14. Locke 2004
  15. Plain Writing Act of 2010
  16. Siegel 2010
  17. Berent 2010
  18. Oliver 2000
  19. Martin 2000
  20. Moukad 1979
  21. Sec. Act Rel. 33-7380 1997
  22. PDF (118 p.)
  23. Tiersma, Peter (2010). "Instructions to jurors: Redrafting California's jury instructions" (PDF). The Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics: 251–264. doi:10.4324/9780203855607.ch17. Retrieved 30 March 2019.

Full citations


  • Cutts, Martin (1996), The Plain English Guide, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-860049-6
  • Rook, Fern (1992), Slaying the English Jargon, Society for Technical Communication, ISBN 0-914548-71-9
  • Williams, Joseph M. (1995), Style, Toward Clarity and Grace, University Of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-89915-2
  • Wydick, Richard C. (2005) [1979], Plain English for Lawyers (paperback, 5th ed.), Carolina Academic Press, ISBN 1-59460-151-8

Further reading

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