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  • Writer's pictureandrew ferguson

The Adventure of Plain English

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

We Scots are a pretty plain-speaking bunch, generally. That's not to say that we aren't capable of jargon and policy speak in our professional lives, of course. And when it comes to actually committing something to paper, that's when the fun really starts!

My top tip for making your written communications easy to understand? It's taken from Melvyn Bragg's excellent book-of-a-series, The Adventure of English, and it's this: the English language is a mongrel that's stolen from a whole lot of other languages. At its most basic, however, its roots run deep in two different directions: Anglo-Saxon and Latin. To be easy to read, go Anglo-Saxon when you can.

1066 and all that had many effects, but one of them was to graft Norman-French, with its Latin origins, on top of the 'native' Anglo-Saxon (which a few centuries before had been the language of the invaders, but let's not get into that). Coupled with the Latin that was used in Church and its canon courts, it meant that modern English often has two or more words that you can use, or utilise, in any context.

The Anglo-Saxon word is generally shorter and pithier. One reason it is that way, by the way, is that the language had to evolve, by knocking a whole load of complicated stuff off the end of its words, so that trade could happen with the Scandinavians who had settled much of northern England in the meantime, and who spoke a similar, but not identical, tongue.

The Latin word, on the other hand, is often longer and more impressive-sounding, coming as it does from the language of the law, the language of power. It's generally not the first word you learn as a child - an important factor when considering emotional impact too.

So when we're trying to sound educated, it's so easy to reach for the Latin word. Here's the thing, though: it makes sentences harder to read. So ask yourself: what's the shorter, Anglo-Saxon word that means the same? Or you could ask yourself: what equivalent Anglo-Saxon vocabulary could I use that has the benefit of brevity? (If you actually think in sentences like that, there may be no hope for you).

Bringing things more up to date, there's a little-known tool in Microsoft Word that can help, a

bit, with all of this. If you go to File/Options/Proofing, there's a little box which is generally unchecked called 'show readability statistics.' If you check that, and then, when you're ready, go to the 'Review' menu and run a spelling and grammar check, it will also give you readability statistics.

Apart from giving you the number of passive sentences in your document (use of the passive voice in your verbs being generally a Bad Thing) it gives you two other measures: the Flesch Reading Ease number, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

What are these? There's more information about them here, but essentially they do the same thing - measure readability by an equation that takes into account the size of words and length of sentences. The Flesch Reading Ease Number ranges between 0 and 100, with higher better - essentially, you should be aiming for 60 or more. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level puts the same numbers in the context of US Grade School. A 5 would mean an 11 year-old would be able to read your deathless prose easily; the higher the number, the longer your reader would have had to stay in school to be able to understand you!

I became interested in all of this recently when doing some drafting for one of my clients, the Standards Commission for Scotland. This was the Advice Note for members of the public on the Councillors' Code of Conduct. Determined to make it as readable a document as a lawyer could make a document readable, I dug into some research on readability. The document has just been published on the Standards Commission's site, so you can decide for yourself how readable it is.

There are some hacks for the Flesch-Kincaid stuff, by the way. One tip for readability is to create bulleted lists. Normally, I'd link the bullets by semicolons: but putting a full stop at the end of each bullet point sends the readability score zooming up, without really making it more readable. In case you were wondering, by the way, this article so far has a Reading Ease Level of 59, and a Grade Score of 10 - which I think means 3rd year at secondary school in the UK, by my reckoning.

Incidentally, if you're interested in hearing more from me on how to write clearly for various markets, it's not too late to sign up for my CLT course, Legal Writing for Communication and Publication, being delivered online on 26th August. Alternatively, if you think there's an appetite for it in your organisation but you're not a lawyer, I'm happy to tailor a similar course to your needs.

PS: The CLT course is set to be rerun in March 2021. Go to their site for more details.

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