When I took a course in Plain English, I was rebellious. I love Jane Austen and Shakespeare, I read dictionaries and play with words for fun. I am fascinated by word derivations and origins, I didn’t want to write plainly. Then I learned that Plain English doesn’t mean boring, flat and lifeless. To the contrary, Plain English is a joy to read and my favourite writers used it long before we had campaigns and Crystal Marks to validate their words.
“Speketh pleyne at this time, I yow preye, that we moun understonde what ye saye.”
Thus in the 1300s, the narrator to Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale beseeched us to speak clearly, to say what we mean and not hide within a wordy fog. His 700-year-old plea is clearer today than many words written right now.
When saying it simply is best, why is there so much convoluted and badly written work out there? Although it seems counter-intuitive, it is actually a skill to write plainly.
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” (Pascal 1657)
This week I struggled through an article so densely written that it took several tries before I understood what he was talking about. My determination quailed each time it came across “perforce” in the third sentence. Perforce – by force, a necessity. From 14th Century Old French. I ask you: why?
Why did the author use it? Did he think it made him seem clever? This is often a trick by office departments which tell us that “the duplex photocopying facilities that have been located on the 4th floor will be temporarily unavailable and non-operational for the duration of Wednesday. A return to full functionality is anticipated upon confirmation duly received from the supplier over the course of the day” and so on.
George Orwell would have agreed:
“Bad writers . . . are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.”
In the 19th Century, William Barnes (1801-1886) – a poet, school master, minister, and language expert – was an advocate for ridding the English Language of words with Latin or Greek roots. His aim was to improve language’s clarity for people without a classical education. Well meaning and democratic, although misguided, his attempts were ultimately unsuccessful. Despite this, I find his suggestions rather beautiful:
Botany – wortlore
Forceps – nipperlings
Medicine – leechcraft
Cygnet – swanling
Literature – wordlore
Flexible – bendsome
Polygamist – manywedder
Caution – forewit
Music – gleecraft
Exit – outgate
Electricity – fireghost
Although the classically rooted words remain, we happily use foreword, handbook and sky-line as easily as we use introduction, manual and horizon.
So, the next time you find yourself seeking the mots justes and exemplars to circumstantiate a polemic – pause and check: is there a good old Plain English alternative?