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Garner on Plain Language

We've been talking to Bryan A. Garner about the new edition of Garner's Modern American Usage. Garner's book is not simply a compendium of do's and don't's: he also offers thoughtful essays advising writers on a wide variety of topics related to usage and style. Here we present Garner's essay on "Plain Language," a useful tonic to muddled and belabored prose.

Plain Language. A. Generally. Albert Einstein once said that his goal in stating an idea was to make it as simple as possible but no simpler. He also said: "Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone." The Evolution of Physics 29 (1938). If that's true of science, surely it's true of most other subjects.

But there is little reason for hope when so many writers seem to believe that to appear competent or smart, they must state their ideas in the most complex manner possible. Of course, this problem plagues many fields of intellectual endeavor, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted:

I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: "Some people marry their deceased wives' sisters." I can express this in language [that] only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language "understanded of the people." In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.

Bertrand Russell, "How I Write" (1954), in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell 63, 65 (Robert E. Egner & Lester E. Denonn eds., 1961).

But the professors have not heeded Russell's advice. Since he wrote that essay in the mid-1950s, things have gotten much worse in fields such as biology, economics, education, law, linguistics, literary criticism, political science, psychology, and sociology.

Consider the following passage from a tax statute, a 260-word tangle that is as difficult to fathom as any mathematical theorem:

57AF(11) Where, but for this sub-section, this section would, by virtue of the preceding provisions of this section, have in relation to a relevant year of income as if, for the reference in sub-section (3) to $18,000, there were substituted a reference to another amount, being an amount that consists of a number of whole dollars and a number of cents (in this sub-section referred to as the "relevant number of cents") —

(a) in the case where the relevant number of cents is less than 50 — the other amount shall be reduced by the relevant number of cents;

(b) in any other case — the other amount shall be increased by the amount by which the relevant number of cents is less than $1.

(12) Where, but for sub-section (5), this section would, by virtue of the preceding provisions of this section, have effect in relation to a relevant year of income as if, for the reference in sub-section (3) to $18,000, there were substituted a reference to another amount, being an amount that consists of a number of whole dollars and a number of cents (in this sub-section referred to as the "relevant number of cents") then, for the purposes of the application of paragraph 4(b) —

(a) in a case where the relevant number of cents is less than 50 — the other amount shall be reduced by the relevant number of cents; or

(b) in any other case — the other amount shall be increased by the amount by which the relevant number of cents is less than $1.

Income Tax Assessment Act [Australia] § 57AF(11), (12) (as quoted in David St. L. Kelly, "Plain English in Legislation," in Essays on Legislative Drafting 57, 58 [David St. L. Kelly ed., 1988]).

That is the type of prose that prompts an oft-repeated criticism: "So unintelligible is the phraseology of some statutes that suggestions have been made that draftsmen, like the Delphic Oracle, sometimes aim deliberately at obscurity." Carleton K. Allen, Law in the Making 486 (7th ed. 1964).

With some hard work, the all-but-inscrutable passage above can be transformed into a straightforward version of only 65 words:

If either of the following amounts is not in round dollars, the amount must be rounded off to the nearest dollar (or rounded up to the next whole dollar if the amount is 50 cents or more):

(a) the amount of the motor-vehicle-depreciation limit; or

(b) the amount that would have been the motor-vehicle-depreciation limit if the amount had equaled or exceeded $18,000.

Revision based on that of Gavin Peck (quoted in Kelly at 59).

Few would doubt that the original statute is unplain and that the revision is comparatively plain. True, to comprehend the revision, the reader must understand what a "motor-vehicle-depreciation limit" is, but some things can be stated only so simply.

But shouldn't learned professionals be allowed complex verbiage? That is, shouldn't they express themselves in more sophisticated ways than nonprofessionals do?

These questions need serious answers because they present the most serious impediment to the plain-language movement. There are essentially four answers.

First, those who write in a difficult, laborious style risk being unclear not only to other readers but also to themselves. Because writing reflects thinking, if your thinking is obscure and convoluted your prose will be, too. And you'll be less likely to appreciate the problems that are buried under such convoluted prose.

Second, obscure writing wastes readers' time — a great deal of it, when the amount is totaled. An Australian study conducted in the 1980s found that lawyers and judges take twice as long deciphering legalistically worded statutes as they do plain-language revisions. See Law Reform Commission of Victoria, Plain English & the Law 61-62 (1987). The same is surely true in other fields as well.

Third, simplifying is a higher intellectual attainment than complexifying. Writing simply and directly is hard work, and professionals ought to set this challenge for themselves. In fact, the hallmark of all the greatest stylists is precisely that they have taken difficult ideas and expressed them as simply as possible. No nonprofessional could do it, and most specialists can't do it. Only extraordinary minds are capable of the task. Still, every writer — brilliant or not — can aim at the mark.

Fourth, the very idea of professionalism demands that writers not conspire against nonspecialists by adopting a style that makes their writing seem like a suffocating fog. We should continually ask ourselves how the culture stacks up when we consider the durable truth expressed by Richard Grant White: "As a general rule, the higher the culture, the simpler the style and the plainer the speech." Words and Their Uses 31 (1870; repr. 1899).

B. A Plain-Language Library. Those wishing to consult further sources in the field may find the following books helpful:

  • Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing (1949).
  • Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Plain Talk (1951; repr. 1978).
  • Robert Gunning, The Technique of Clear Writing (rev. ed. 1968).
  • Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers (1979).
  • How Plain English Works for Business: Twelve Case Studies (U.S. Dep't of Commerce, Office of Consumer Affairs, 1984).
  • Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words (Sidney Greenbaum & Janet Whitcut eds., 3d ed. 1986).
  • Robert D. Eagleson, Writing in Plain English (1990).
  • Plain Language: Principles and Practice (Erwin R. Steinberg ed., 1991).
  • Richard Lauchman, Plain Style: Techniques for Simple, Concise, Emphatic Business Writing (1993).
  • Martin Cutts, The Plain English Guide (1995).
  • Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English (2001).
  • Joseph Kimble, Lifting the Fog of Legalese (2006).

From Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. Copyright © 2009. Reproduced with permission of Oxford University Press.


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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 17th 2009, 3:19 AM
Comment by: ppeffy@bigpond.com.au
Since I have subscribed to Visual Thesauras, I have become more aware of my deficiencies in written communication, Each article I write is carefully examined to exclude obscurities,and redundancies, but I am still impressed with the use of jargon in some scientific papers where one word , for instance,in Botanical Latin, can express what would take several English words to describe. However, I needed to buy the dictionary to understand the descriptive Latinate word!!!!
Since finding VT, I have enjoyed the various articles, the exercises,and presises with great delight
However I remember vividly my medical friend's lawyer brother complaining that her English had deteriorated since working in a multiligual environment where English was not her patients' first Language,this occurring 50 years ago, but she did have the advantage of interpreting body language.
Thursday September 17th 2009, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Joe W.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Or maybe I should have said, “Simplify.”
Thursday September 17th 2009, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Peter C. (Malibu, CA)
And how about politicians? I can't give the exact name but I think it was a congressman from Minnesota who in the 70's said the following:

"I didn't say I didn't say it, I said I didn't say I said it."

...or in this case it might just be a brilliant case of grammatical denial that could not have been stated more clearly.
Thursday September 17th 2009, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Can I suggest another title for the Plain-Language Library?

The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. The edition I have is from Random House, 1979, a reprint of the 1943 original. This has always been one of my favorites.
Saturday October 10th 2009, 2:45 PM
Comment by: Amy L. (Woodstock, VT)
Another title for the Plain-Language Library: Mightier Than the Sword, by C. Edward Good. While it is subtitled "Powerful Writing in the Legal Profession", its lessons apply to all types of writing. My copy has underlines on every single page.
Thursday March 18th 2010, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"if your thinking is obscure and convoluted your prose will be, too"

The converse is also true, and brings to mind Charles Darwin's remarks about his approach to writing: "I never study style: all that I do is to try to get [the] subject clear as I can in my own head, & express it in the commonest language which occurs to me.— But I generally have to think a good deal before [the] simplest arrangement & words occur to me."

Thank you for the plain-language library. Another good book on the subject is The Plain Style: A Rhetoric and Reader by Robert Hogan and Herbert Bogart. It mainly comprises selected writing by plain-style practitioners (such as James Baldwin, William James and Robert Graves) followed by Hogan and Bogart's analysis.
Friday March 19th 2010, 8:26 AM
Comment by: ppeffy@bigpond.com.au
I was very surprised to read the most recent comment,so long after the original article.
It did me good to reread the article again. I have offered to write a newsletter, so hopefully , i shall follow the above principles

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