The Sanity of Plain Language

Although we all begin life using small words and understanding each other perfectly, somewhere between childhood and middle management our ability to communicate goes mad. We turn healthy little nouns like “product” into overgrown verbs like “productize,” which then become bloated nouns like “productization.” Forms are impossible to complete, instructions are impossible to follow, and presentations are totally incomprehensible. How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Where does it begin?

It starts small. A group of smart, capable people are discussing a new idea or a new product and they come to a stumble in the conversation. They need to describe this new thing (for the first time in human history!) and they realize that none of them can really think of the right word for it. For example, they want to talk about “the process of turning an idea into a product for sale.”

So there’s some muttering and stammering until someone manages to fumble out the completely made-up term “productize.” Everyone blinks, frowns, and then slowly nods. Sure. Productize. The English language is flexible enough that anyone who hears the word “productize” will basically understand the idea, so the group heaves a sigh of relief that their word problem is solved and they move on with their conversation, using the word “productize.”

But they’re going to have more meetings so they need their teams to do research, write reports, and present their findings about “productizing” so the teams are all forced to use the new word. The team members mention the word to friends and peers, and by the end of the week everyone in the business world is “executing an actionable productization process to maximize concept potential as a market deliverable to realize significant profits within the minimum allowable ROI period persuant to line item fifteen of the Statement of Work.”

Strunk and White are sobbing in their graves.

The English language is a brilliant thing. Much like the US Constitution or a willow tree, the English language’s greatest strength is its flexibility, its adaptability, its potential for endless growth. However, our lovely language has been seriously abused in recent decades by some very smart and successful people who were just too darn lazy to bother thinking of the right word or using a perfectly clear phrase instead of a bizarre new term.

This laziness resulted in countless new words and phrases that are completely unnecessary, and this new business dialect grew out of control throughout industry and government around the English-speaking world. Fortunately, human beings are smart and eventually some of them realized that this horrible corporate language was, in fact, horrible.

To combat business language, these smart people coined the term “Plain English,” which became “Plain Language.” The idea was simple: Write things so that they are easy to understand and easy to use. To that end, various plain language associations and societies formed to establish standards for business and government communciations, and eventually these efforts resulted in a series of US executive orders mandating that government documents be written in plain language.

How much better is plain language? Let’s look at a few examples (source).

Example 1, before:

[Name] informed you of the procedures for calculating interest for insufficient estimates. If the enclosed invoice(s) include charges for insufficient estimates, a detailed insufficient estimated [sic] used to calculate these charges is also enclosed.

Example 1, after:

How to pay your bill: To avoid penalties as well as further interest, you must pay this bill by its due date.

Example 2, before:

Make sure that the account holder’s name on the account is the same as the name of the customer to whose account the transaction should be attributed.

Example 2, after:

Make sure that this account is for the right customer.

Hooray! This means that when the government wants us to fill out a census or pay taxes or fight in a war, we will have no trouble understanding the paperwork.

(Note that the Braley Plain Language Act has been approved by the House of Representatives twice, but not yet approved by the Senate, so it’s not a law. Yet.)

But what does this mean for you? For your job? For your company?

If you’re lucky, your company has already discovered and embraced plain language. Good for you. But it’s more likely that your company hasn’t bothered to fix their language, and they continue to make up words and write documents that are more and more confusing.

Plain language will make your life easier. It will make it easier for you to read materials you are given, and it will make it easier for you to write company-approved materials. What can you do to make this happen?

  1. Google “plain language.”
  2. Gather some feedback from your clients, your software users, your website visitors, and find out if they think your written materials are confusing.
  3. Rewrite some of your company materials in plain language to use as an example.
  4. Demonstrate that plain language is usually briefer than business language.
  5. Demonstrate that plain language improves user satisfaction.
  6. Show it all to your boss, and cross your fingers.

So if you’re tired of actionablizing the deliveration of systematicified contenticity, then I strongly encourage you to support plain language.

Popular search terms for this article:

plain language examples

Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site


  1. ruined on the 6th April

    My mother was witness to this horrible process. She was an assistant to a number of law professors at a university, and they would have discussions about words.

    “Is there a word for this?” “I’m not sure.” “Well there should be!”

    Actionable irritates me every time I hear it.

  2. arin on the 6th April

    K.I.S.S. < "keep it simple, stupid" had always been my mantra until i went to work for "big corp".

    every change in procedure had to be documented and forwarded to the "team leader", who edited/approved and forwarded it to the section head, who edited/approved and forwarded it to the dept head, who edited/approved and then released the change dept-wide.

    so "documents to be filed by ssn in order to save time when researching" wound up as "in order to increase cost-benefits, the value-added implementation of strategic placement of human resource categorization by federal identification number has commenced."

    several times, after forwarding a procedure change along, i received the dept-wide approval memo and had no idea what it was that they had approved exactly.

    drove me absolutely batty.

  3. David on the 6th April

    I agree to a certain extent – I think your examples are a bit skewed, and particularly the first one doesn’t send the same message after ‘translation’.

    The same laziness and lack of flexibility that led to impossibly difficult ‘business speak’ can also oversimplify our language. English can be both functional and ornamental.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 8th April


      Well, I agree that the content in the first example has changed, but that example won a “Clarity Award” so I’m guessing the original version was so badly written that it completely failed to convey what it was supposed to say.

      I don’t think we’re in any danger of oversimplifying the English language. I just think that if people spent a little more time learning to use our “core” words properly, I doubt there would be a need for such imaginative business words.

  4. Brad on the 7th April

    I think the reason more of us don’t use plain language is that we risk not sounding smart.

    Why say something in 10 words when you can drag it out to 100?

    • Joseph Lewis on the 7th April

      I worry about that, too. I think most people begin writing in this overblown style during college, partly because they are learning new words and ideas and partly because they want to impress people.

      Unfortunately, this problem does hurt customer satisfaction and product sales and other meatworld things. When actual human beings can’t navigate your website, or fill out your form, or use your product, you probably won’t be in business very long.

    • The Simple Machine on the 8th April

      Well in high school and college you are required to write essays between X and Y number of words.

      So even if your message is clear in Z words, you are forced to add fluffy information. A lot of us learn about quantity over quality.

  5. Julius on the 7th April

    Not only is plain language easier to understand, but it also shows your readers that you are one of them and not some high and mighty deity.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 7th April

      That’s right, Julius. There is a time and a place for togas and lightning bolts, but it’s not in an instruction manual.

  6. Cliff Tyllick on the 9th April

    Not yet a law? The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Obama in October. Read a summary and find links to more information at

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