Using Plain English

Let’s leverage some blue sky thinking...

5 June 2017 | Rosalind Scott | , , , ,

It is the intention of the author in the missive that follows to discourse on the use of a simplistic and unadorned linguistic style when expounding upon new topics to those to whom they are unfamiliar. The significance of manifest language is not to be underestimated as a device in the creation of superior educational experiences but non obstante is frequently disregarded…

Have I lost you?

Sorry, let’s turn on the Plain Englishometer…there!

I’m going to talk about Plain English, specifically in the creation of e-learning programmes. It is important to use plain English when creating training programmes of any kind, but for some reason we often find ourselves clicking through courses with content not too dissimilar to the mess you just read!

So why does it happen?

The fact is that both learning designers and our clients have often become so used to using business jargon and legalese that we don’t even notice we’re doing it.

Ever said, ‘we’ll leave that with yourselves’, when you meant ‘you need to decide’? Or, ‘implement that going forward’, when you meant ‘do that from now on’?

Thought so.

It may even be appropriate in some situations, but when your main objective is to explain something to someone as clearly as possible, so that once they have read it they can understand and act on what they have read, i.e. to teach them, it is definitely not.

The main reasons that are often given for keeping complex or overly formal language in courses are:

  • We don’t want to sound patronising or childish
  • We don’t want to alter the meaning of the content
  • We need to sound professional
  • We don’t want to sound dull

Let’s look at these one by one, and I’ll show you why they are not true.

We don’t want to sound patronising or childish

plain english graphic 2

You may be thinking that by Plain English, I mean using only short words; making things shorter or making them sound amateur, but I do not. Plain English does not mean using bad English, abandoning grammar, or sticking rigidly to the rules of grammar, or using words of only one syllable.

It is not patronising to say exactly what you mean in words that your audience will understand. For example, why say;

The principal company drives business strategy and manages performance, with support of local partners who own operational execution on a day-to-day basis.

when you could say;

The company sets the strategy and oversees performance, while local partners carry out day-to-day operations.

It is often best, when writing the text for a course, to imagine that you are speaking directly to the learner. We manage not to patronise people when we speak to them face to face, so why should it come across as patronising just because it is written down?

Changing the meaning of what is being said

This, perhaps, is more difficult. As learning designers, we often deal with subject matter that is complex, and have a very short time in which to understand and be able to write about it confidently. There can sometimes be a concern that, in trying to explain something in simple terms, we risk subtly changing the meaning and giving the wrong message to learners.

For example,

There were challenges posed from the potential interpretations of questions and terminology. This made it potentially challenging to generalise results and comparison of responses between respondents could be impacted by differences in interpretation.

has a slightly different meaning to:

We could not draw generalised conclusions from the results of the survey, since respondents interpreted questions and terminology differently.

Although one is written more simply, and is on the face of it simpler to understand, some subtle meaning has been lost from the original paragraph. This is something that, as learning designers, we are careful to avoid when rewriting clients’ content. It’s important to remember that storyboarding is a sort of back and forth conversation with our clients, with each side making suggestions and feeding back on the other’s ideas. Wherever we have failed to get across the meaning of a section correctly, our clients have the chance to let us know and make changes.

Where necessary, we can always insert clients’ text word-for-word into the course, to ensure no meaning is lost in translation. This often happens, for example, when dealing with legal content.

Not sounding professional

This one just isn’t true. More and more businesses these days are embracing Plain English; it is recognised as being more efficient, more easily understood and even a bit friendlier. When creating learning programmes, we often try to imagine that we are talking to, rather than at, the learners, in the same way that businesses try to talk to rather than at their customers.

More direct communication is always more efficient and easier to understand. Think of it as the difference between talking to someone face to face and leaving them notes to pick up later.

plain english graphic 1Of course, the medium of e-learning courses is limited in that it really only allows for a ‘lecture’ rather than a ‘workshop’ style of communication. We can talk to learners, but we can’t actually have a conversation with them. We can, however, make learners feel more involved by using Plain English. Simple things such as addressing the learner directly and using the active voice can make a big difference.

We understand that some clients need to present themselves in a formal way. However, Plain English does not have to be ‘informal’; it simply removes a layer of complexity. Even if an organisation is very formal in its communication style, it is still just as important that their learners feel involved in their training and understand it, as this will go on to impact on how well they can do their jobs.

Sounding dull

Employees are advised that in the event of fire they must assemble in the designated area in a timely fashion.

In the event of fire, go straight to the meeting point.

Which one of those sounded more boring? If there was a fire I think I’d be asleep before the end of the first sentence!

It is not dull to use Plain English. In fact it is much less dull to use the active (go straight) rather than the passive (employees are advised that they must assemble) voice.


Simply put: It’s much easier for learners to learn if they understand what they are reading straight away. We deal with complex subjects and it is often hard enough for learners to grasp some of the concepts we are introducing them to without adding an extra layer of complication.

If you want learners to do something, or know something, tell them. Don’t assume that learners will work harder to understand something, or think it is more important, if you make the language dense and complicated - trust me, they’ll just skip over it.

One trick is to always remember that this is training, not an official document and to say to yourself, ‘If I was seeing this for the first time, how would I like it to be explained to me?’