Why hasn’t plain language become the norm?

The ability to communicate clear messages in writing is critical for the success of individuals in the workplace and the organizations they represent — though I have argued that plain language is only one of the communication strategies a pro must master. There are gads of folks who condemn business and government for creating ineffective documents and who advocate clear writing. So why isn’t plain language more widely adopted? I intend to explore this question in a series of posts. And in future research.

A Little History

You may think that the concern over plain language is a recent phenomenon. But the fact is that it has enjoyed fairly constant interest for the past 400 years. If you look at the graph, you’ll see the peak of interest as measured by the appearance of phrases “plain language” and “plain English” in books was actually in the late 17th and the 18th centuries. That’s when Dryden, Defoe, Swift, and Johnson were working to legislate usage of English.  Even if their intent had been worthy, the actual guidance offered by this group was deeply flawed. (See Shibboleths and entering the professions for one specific example, as well as suggestions for further investigation.)

See this Google site for more information about the tool and sampling method behind the graph.

Plain Language Champions

Today, there are lots of good people working as champions of plain language (not only in English) around the world:

In many cases, their efforts are substantively different from those historical ones mentioned above. One of the reasons I support the Center for Plain Language is because they advocate testing the effect of a document on readers’ behavior and knowledge. In other words, unlike the 18th century prescriptivists, contemporary plain language champions promote collecting data before making recommendations about a written message. Although it’s getting dated, there was a good overview of plain language in the journal, Technical Communication, posted here.

Plain Language Efforts

There have been some plain language victories. The U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) published A Plain English Handbook for writing SEC disclosure documents back in 1996, with Warren Buffett explaining his own process for producing clearly written documents in the preface. And the Plain Writing Act of 2010 now mandates plain language in documents from all federal agencies in the U.S. You can read the law, which is not written in plain language, for yourself. Here is the recent report card for agencies. You can see more detailed report cards for individual agencies, too. Plus I mentioned the exemplary work on plain language in designing mortgage disclosures in Pros manage the document creation process.

All of the plain language advocates I’m aware of describe dos and don’ts for style (e.g., “Use active rather than passive voice”). But the best embed that advice within a rhetorically complete, comprehensive writing process. Consider the table of contents from the SEC’s Plain English Handbook, which was written to guide the creation of a specific sub-genre — documents disclosing investment risks (e.g., a prospectus, shareholder report, etc.). The guidance covers audience analysis (Ch 3), content development (Ch 4), content organization (Ch 5), style (Ch 6), page layout & visual design (Ch 7), writing process (Ch 8), warnings against computer-based evaluations (Ch 9), and usability testing of documents (ch 10). If you’ve followed me for long, you know this guidance is similar to what I provide to individuals who want to become pro writers in the workplace.

Plain Language Obstacles

Dana Howard Botka, Manager of Customer Communications for Washington State writes,

More and more agencies and businesses are starting  plain language initiatives.  They often start with training so their  employees learn the techniques of writing and designing clear  documents and web pages.  That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. The bigger challenge follows: making plain language move forward in the real world of their organization.

Despite these victories, we all see — and either complain ourselves or listen to others complain about —  countless documents we would not describe as clear. So what gives? I see four possible obstacles:

  1. Not enough individuals are able to write in plain language.
  2. Not enough individuals are willing to write in plain language.
  3. Not enough organizations are able to deliver documents written in plain language.
  4. Not enough organizations are willing to deliver documents written in plain language.

These  will be the focus of my sabbatical research next fall. (I’m thinking about it now because I have to submit my proposal.) I’ll give you my initial thoughts about each of these explanations for the lack of widespread adoption of plain language in the near future.  I hope you will weigh in with your own thoughts.

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  1. I’m interested in the first obstacle: not enough people are able to write in plain language. I have a writing background and some experience in plain language. What is your advice for getting more experience (or qualifications), if my goal is to market myself as an expert?


    1. Robin, this is the obstacle I know the most about because of my 25 years in higher ed. In fact, my current interest in the obstacles to widespread adoption of plain language is due to my perception that teaching a hundred or so students how to write plainly has had an effect on their individual lives but no impact whatsoever within the wider world. I guess I’m having a mid-life crisis of sorts 😉

      Because my efforts have focused almost exclusively on plain language skills among professions whose expertise is not explicitly in communication, I don’t think I can give you advice about how to market yourself. But I encourage you to use the network and resources available within professional organizations like PLAIN: http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/networkindex.html

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