A vintage primary-school classroom scene in black & white

Common objections to Plain English #1

A number of criticisms have been levelled against Plain English. In this latest series of blogs I want to try to counter, mitigate or even celebrate, some of them. In doing so, I hope to reassure any potential Plain English converts out there who might be having doubts.

OBJECTION #1: ‘It’s all just grammar and punctuation’

I should start by saying that I’ve only ever heard this objection in relation to Plain English once. Nonetheless, I’ve included it in this series because it’s something people often say to put down language and writing guidance in general. That may be because they’re unsure of or put off by what they see as ‘rules’ when it comes to writing—a hangover from their schooldays, perhaps—but I’m not sure. If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

In my view, grammar and punctuation are not elitist, irrelevant or unreasonable impositions. Why? Because every time you speak, put pen to paper or press finger to keyboard, you use them. And most of the time you do so effortlessly and correctly, without thinking about it. If you didn’t use them, all you’d produce are endless strings of randomly ordered words that your readers would find hard, if not impossible, to make sense of [1].


In terms of how much you need to understand grammar and punctuation when it comes to Plain English, I would make three points:

1.   Plain English is, first and foremost, about the language you use. It’s about 1) using everyday words and phrases that people are familiar with and which are unambiguous in their meaning; and, it’s about 2) putting those words and phrases into straightforward, natural sentences, as if you were talking to someone you know well.

e.g. ‘No football’, as opposed to ‘Recreational activities using a hard ball are not allowed’

And that’s it. If you can get into the habit of writing in those two ways you’ve cracked it, and neither grammar nor punctuation need be mentioned.

2.   That said, Plain English does have something to do with grammatical style. Lurking beneath your wonderfully plain sentences—and indeed your unplain ones—are certain grammatical constructions. But here’s the good news: You don’t need to know what they are to write clearly or unclearly, as I’ve explained above.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested in that kind of thing or think it would help to know the theory behind the practice, we’d be happy to tell you more about the technical stuff.

Luckily for everyone, our TEPL training (Teaching English as a Plain Language) is unusual in that it caters for both learning styles.

3.   Finally, however, Plain English has nothing to do with punctuation, full stop (pun intended😁)!


[1] Some level of grammar and punctuation is essential if you want people to be able to understand you. However, not every ‘rule’ is. Take a look at both this sentence and the sentence this footnote refers to. Some grammarians will say you should never end a sentence with words like ‘to’ or ‘of’. I’ve chosen to ignore that here in favour of keeping things natural and conversational.

Photo courtesy of the Austrian National Library on Unsplash.