Plain English

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Towards more picturesque speech


George Orwell on plain English | SEC guidance on plain English Plain English Anatomy Noun | Verb | Adjective | Adverb | Preposition | Conjunction | Latin | Germany | Flannel | Legal triplicate | Nominalisation | Murder your darlings

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Second commandment. Short Questions. Plain words. Again you’ve got to acquire the knack of asking short questions using plain words, because in law school, by and large, you have been practising long sentences using elaborate words. You know, lawyerese. I don’t know why it is that it is a custom among lawyers to speak and write this peculiar dialect of English that is known to nobody else except lawyers. English is an extraordinarily rich language. There are five synonyms for everything. Always one or two of those synonyms derive from the Germanic languages and they are short and punchy. The other words, which mean the same thing, derive from the Latin, and they are long and kind of complicated.

Develop the knack for always choosing the Germanic word.

For five-and-a-half years I’ve presided in that trial court in New York City. ... On the civil calendar the automobile accident was the bread and butter of it. God knows how many I presided over: hundreds, maybe even a thousand. Out of all of those cased and all of those lawyers, ladies and gentlemen, so help me, not once did I ever hear a lawyer use the word “car”. It was always “motor vehicle”. Not once did I ever hear a lawyer say to a witness, “how did you drive your car?” It was always, “what did you then do with respect to the operation and control of your motor vehicle?”

As if they were writing a trust indenture and in any event, that’s no way to write a trust indenture.

—Irving Younger: The Ten Commandments of Cross Examination


Here is a resource about plain English: see the panel on the right; click ᐅ to expand the list of topics.

Object-oriented approach

For a forlorn attempt to understand a topic that everyone seems to agree about — more plain English would be better — but no one seems to get any better at: An object-oriented approach to plain English: an approach to plain English through specific words and expressions.

Anyway

These address, variously, and with varing degrees of perspicacity, parts of speech; about how a mediocre lawyer can turn the active passive; make a simple preposition into a compound one in the blink of an eye. About how to nominalise verbs - or should I say, how to subject verbs to nominalisation. About how to ornament a perfectly sensible conjunction into a dense conjunctival phrase.

As I have grown older and, frankly, tired of waiting for it, I have come to disbelieve the efficient language hypothesis to which those who appeal to plain English subscribe. It will not arrive by itself; it will not evolve; it is not an unstable aberration waiting on some tipping point to correct itself. It is systemic. It is a function of how lawyers train, organise and evaluate themselves. The systemic forces encouraging prolixity are psychological, instinctive and visceral; they outweigh the intricate silken constructions our rational selves conjure in the air. They are the elephant to our logical rider. If we are to fix this, we need to come from a different place. We are trying that with the semantic code project. Nothing ventured; nothing gained.

Some intellectual impostures, then:

  • Why: Why should we write in plain English?
  • Why not: Why don’t we write in plain English all the time?
  • How: Ok, so how do I do this?
  • Details - Any specific examples?

See also