The plain truth: Applying Plain English principles to improving texts

John Linnegar, Belgium

Simplicity. Accessibility. Readability. Is the writer’s intention understood at first reading? These are the battle cries of the Plain Language Movement. But what exactly can the editor or translator do towards making texts meet these requirements?

When editors exercise their craft, they often tend to think of the standard facets of editing: copy-editing, substantive and structural editing, perhaps with some degree of formatting or styling for consistency. The need also to apply Plain English principles seems to be overlooked far too frequently, to the neglect of the target readers. In this day and age, conveying messages simply has become an important consideration.

During this session, I shall share some of the fundamental elements for adapting texts following Plain English principles. For those unfamiliar with them, this is an undoubtedly useful skill to acquire and cultivate, because it will gain them a reputation for transforming turgid writing into attractive, accessible and readable text that readers will delight in reading. And which will reflect well on its originators. These principles include:

  • Striving for shorter, less complex sentences and paragraphs, simpler synonyms rather than more ‘difficult’ words, and strong, active verbs instead of brain-numbing nominalisations.
  • Preferring the active over the passive voice, using more visual elements such as vertical lists, and expressing ideas and arguments positively rather than negatively are yet further devices to employ.
  • And, of course, using punctuation not merely correctly but effectively.

Thanks to the many examples of unplain and plain English to be shared with them in an accompanying handout – and some audience participation – the participants in this session will leave with a Plain English ‘toolkit’. That kit is bound to equip them with the approach and skills needed to implement such a reader-oriented approach to improving texts. That’s the plain truth.

 

About the presenter

John Linnegar

An author and a passionate copy-editor with some 40+ years’ of manuscript improvement behind him, John Linnegar is a former teacher of English at secondary school and undergraduate levels. His specialty as an editor is law. In 2009 he published a book on common errors committed by writers in English in South Africa (NB Publishers, reprinted 2013); in 2012 he co-authored Text Editing: A Handbook for Students and Practitioners (UA Press) and in 2019, together with Ken McGillivray, wrote and published grammar, punctuation and all that jazz … (MLA Publishers). He contributes regular articles on the usage and abusage of the English language to professional bodies.

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