plain English



Plain English (or layman's terms) are groups of words that are to be clear and easy to know. It usually avoids the use of rare words and uncommon
euphemism A euphemism () is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that is deemed offensive or suggests something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes ...
s to explain the subject. Plain English wording is intended to be suitable for almost anyone, and it allows for good understanding to help readers know a topic.


The term derives from the 16th-century idiom "in plain English", meaning "in clear, straightforward language". 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
layperson Laypeople or laypersons may refer to: * Someone who is not an expert in a particular field of study ** Lay judge *** Lay judges in Japan * Laity, members of a church who are not clergy ** Lay brother ** Lay sister ** Lay preacher ** Lay aposto ...
, or common person without expertise on the subject, can understand.


United Kingdom

In 1946, writer
George Orwell Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. His work is characterised by lucid prose, social criticism, opposition to totalitari ...
wrote an essay entitled, "
Politics and the English Language "Politics and the English Language" (1946) is an essay by George Orwell that criticised the "ugly and inaccurate" written English of his time and examined the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language. The essay ...
", where he criticized the dangers of "ugly and inaccurate" contemporary
written English English orthography is the writing system used to represent spoken English, allowing readers to connect the graphemes to sound and to meaning. It includes English's norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation, word breaks, emphasis, a ...
. 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 His Majesty's Treasury (HM Treasury), occasionally referred to as the Exchequer, or more informally the Treasury, is a department of His Majesty's Government responsible for developing and executing the government's public finance policy and ec ...
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." 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 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: There is a trend toward plainer language in legal documents.
Plain English Campaign The Plain English Campaign (PEC) is a commercial editing and training firm based in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1979 by Chrissie Maher, the company is a world leader in plain-language advocacy, working to persuade organisations in the UK an ...
has been campaigning since 1979 "against
gobbledygook Gibberish, also called jibber-jabber or gobbledygook, is speech that is (or appears to be) nonsense. It may include speech sounds that are not actual words, pseudowords, or language games and specialized jargon that seems nonsensical to outsi ...
jargon Jargon is the specialized terminology associated with a particular field or area of activity. Jargon is normally employed in a particular communicative context and may not be well understood outside that context. The context is usually a partic ...
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." The 1999 " Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts" regulations mandate "plain and intelligible" language. An inquiry into the 2005 London bombings recommended that emergency services should always use plain English. It found that
verbosity Verbosity or verboseness is speech or writing that uses more words than necessary. The opposite of verbosity is plain language. Some teachers, including the author of ''The Elements of Style'', warn against verbosity; similarly Mark Twain and Er ...
can lead to misunderstandings that could cost lives.


The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). is the national leader in plain English training and provision in Ireland. Since 2005, NALA has supported organisations and government departments to use plain English through its training, style guides and editing work. In 2019, NALA saw its lobbying work pay off when a Draft Plain Language Act (2019) received cross party support, but Brexit discussions and then
COVID-19 Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious disease caused by a virus, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The first known case was identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The disease quick ...
put the draft act on hold. NALA and other plain English advocates hope that the draft Act is enacted soon. Meanwhile, NALA continues to support domestic and international efforts to make information accessible to all (particularly those with literacy and numeracy needs). In early 2020, NALA developed an A-Z plain English guide to COVID-19 terms and continues to provide support and advice to those who wish to improve the quality and clarity of their information. It is also a keen supporter of, and contributor to, the evolving international plain language standards.

United States

In the US, the Plain Language Movement in government communication started in the 1970s. The Paperwork Reduction Act was introduced in 1976, 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." Many agencies now have long-standing policies mandating plain language; in 2010, this was made a federal requirement with the Plain Writing Act.

Legal writing

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.'' In 1977, New York became the first state to pass legislation requiring plain English in consumer contracts and leases. 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 The Securities Act of 1933, also known as the 1933 Act, the Securities Act, the Truth in Securities Act, the Federal Securities Act, and the '33 Act, was enacted by the United States Congress on May 27, 1933, during the Great Depression and aft ...
, due to rules the
Securities and Exchange Commission The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is an independent agency of the United States federal government, created in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The primary purpose of the SEC is to enforce the law against market ...
(SEC) adopted in 1998. In 2011, PLAIN (Plain Language Action and Information Network) published ''Federal Plain Language Guidelines''. 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 Jury instructions, directions to the jury, or judge's charge are legal rules that jurors should follow when deciding a case. They are a type of jury control procedure to support a fair trial. Description Jury instructions are the set of lega ...
. These standardized jury instructions were problematic, as they were written using technical language rather than in plain English. In the late 1970s,
Robert The name Robert is an ancient Germanic given name, from Proto-Germanic "fame" and "bright" (''Hrōþiberhtaz''). Compare Old Dutch ''Robrecht'' and Old High German ''Hrodebert'' (a compound of '' Hruod'' ( non, Hróðr) "fame, glory, ho ...
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'' (BAJI) instructions regarding the care of motorists when operating a motor vehicle read: 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'' (CACI) reworked these instructions and read: 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.

Medical writing

In medical writing, plain language serves to meet patients at their level of health literacy. As defined by the Institute of Medicine's report, ''
health literacy Health literacy is the ability to obtain, read, understand, and use healthcare information in order to make appropriate health decisions and follow instructions for treatment. There are multiple definitions of health literacy, in part, because heal ...
'' is "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions." In April 2004, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) released health literacy reports citing the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) results as a cause for concern. The 1992 NALS indicated that nearly half of Americans demonstrated limited literacy skills. The NALS did not explicitly look at ''health'' literacy, but it did cover health-related tasks. In response, researchers developed methods to measure health literacy, such as the Health Activities Literacy Scale (HALS). Many governmental organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), continue to research methods and produce materials for implementing plain language and meeting health literacy needs. Using plain language in addition to, or in place of, medical terminology can help patients make informed health decisions. Potential obstacles to high health literacy can stem from socioeconomic factors, such as race and poverty. Research continues to develop on best practices for plain language in the medical field. Meanwhile, various organizations have resources available, such as the AHRQ's Health Literacy Improvement Tools, the United States National Library of Medicine's
MedlinePlus MedlinePlus is an online information service produced by the United States National Library of Medicine. The service provides curated consumer health information in English and Spanish with select content in additional languages. The site brings t ...
website, and the CDC's Plain Language Materials and Resources page.

See also


Citation footnotes

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Full citations

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Further reading

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External links

"Federal Plain Language Guidelines"
U.S. Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), (rev. May 2011)
"A Plain English Handbook"
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Office of Investor Education and Assistance, (August 1998) {{English dialects by continent Standard English