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“Word Nerd” Leonie Swift: Why Plain English is Key to Communication

Posted by Peter Barnes on October 1, 2019 at 9:42 PM

Leonie Swift is a self-described ‘word nerd”. She’s a former librarian with a passion for Plain English. Leonie now teaches people how to write in Plain English so their readers get the message easily and understand clearly what’s been written.

She says Plain English is not only useful for writing documents, school assignments, articles, reports and so on. Leonie Swift Plain English Word NerdIt’s applicable everywhere, even for writing on street signs.

I recently chatted with Leonie on the Learning Capacity Podcast where she explained why Plain English is not just “dumbing down” writing but is so important if you want to get your message understood. 

And she gives some examples of how it can also be fun.

Listen to the interview

Topics covered

  • What is Plain English?
  • Examples of Plain English
  • Why it’s important
  • How to learn to write in Plain English
  • Tips for Plain English writers
  • Funny signs where English is not plain

People & organisations mentioned

Resources mentioned

If you would like to read the podcast transcript, here it is:

Episode 104 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

“Word Nerd” Leonie Swift: Why Plain English is Key to Communication

Peter Barnes:      What’s Plain English?

Leonie Swift:   Well Plain English is a style of writing which is very direct and clear and concise. There are lots of different definitions but one that I like is this one. Plain English is clear, accurate, uncluttered writing. It’s easy to understand the first time you read it.

In Plain English, the wording, structure and design are so clear that the readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find and use that information. That pretty much sums it up.

Peter:     There's a ton of writing out there in all sort of walks of life and forms that is not plain. Many times, I just don't quite get what the writer is talking about.

Leonie:   That's right. Especially with government agencies and businesses, people have felt the need to write in an official style. They believe it gives a certain credibility and a certain authority.

But the trend is changing. So those things are now starting to look a little bit outdated. And many big companies are understanding that Plain English and direct speech is so much more beneficial to their readers.

Peter:     That's a bit like professional talk. So, if I'm in a profession: let's say I'm an engineer, or an accountant, a medical person, or a librarian, for that matter, talking and writing to people in my profession. There's a whole language and words which people who are outside of that group wouldn't understand.

Are you suggesting people in that situation should try to avoid too much of their professional jargon, their industry jargon?

A key principle - understand your audience

Leonie:   Not necessarily. One of the key principles of Plain English writing is to understand who your audience is. So that's the first thing.

Think about who you're writing to. That might be a group of academic Ph.D. students. Or it might be a group of doctors.  In these cases, you can assume a certain knowledge of terminology, jargon and technical speech which might be acceptable to that audience. 

But, if your audience is the general public, you would change the way you write to cut out acronyms and jargon words. Because those people will be struggling to understand them.

And of course, many acronyms are the same but they can mean different things. I fell into that trap recently when I was speaking with a friend and I mentioned “RTO” because I have a strong interest in the training world. And for me, “RTO” means a Registered Training Organization but for her, it meant a Regional Tourism Office. 

Peter:     Yes, if you're in an organization or a business, and you're writing to a colleague, not to the general public, is any reason why you shouldn't try to write Plain English?

Because the message you're trying to convey to your colleague will be understood much better if it's Plain English. Even if there's a bit of jargon you both understand.

Leonie:   Absolutely true. I think all of us benefit. Look, everybody's so busy. We all are reading. We're quite often reading on the hop, especially in workplaces and especially when you think of emails.

It makes sense to be as direct and clear as you can. People can misunderstand and depending on the context, that could be a really dangerous thing. For example, a workplace health and safety email.

If someone misunderstands, or you use ambiguous language in a work instruction, people could get hurt.

It makes good sense to be as direct and clear as possible. No matter what a person's literacy level, or even their knowledge of the field of work. To me it's a considerate style of writing. Because it saves people time, it gives them the information they need quickly and easily. 

What sparked Leonie's interest in Plain English?

Peter:    We’re going to explore Plain English and what it means and how you teach it and the benefits and all. But before we do that, can you tell us how you got interested in this Plain English world?

Leonie:   Well it's quite fascinating. It was a very gradual thing for me. Of course, it's something I've never consciously thought about. But I found I have a knack for doing it. And I started to get a lot of feedback from people saying, "Oh, you know, when you explain things we understand". 

Or when I submitted assignments at University, the lecturers were always saying they were “really clear, really concise, you've summed everything up without using extra words”. And I never took a lot of notice of that. 

But lately, I've been thinking, "Well, I think that might be a strength I have." And then I attended a Plain English training workshop a few years ago as part of my professional development. I absolutely loved it. And as soon as I went to that workshop, I thought "Oh, I really love this. I would love to teach this myself."

How to teach Plain English writing

Peter:     So how do you teach it?

Leonie:  Well, that's a good question. It is one of those things that people need to practice. Face to face is a great way to teach it. Because in a room you'll get a broad cross-section of people with different backgrounds.  And it's not related to your expertise or your knowledge of a topic.

But the ability to write clearly about a topic is something not everyone has. The best way to do it is to be in a room and to give people some activities. And to watch them and give them a few things to try. See where the snags are, and then elaborate from there. 

It takes a bit of practice. It takes a little while for people to understand, to remember how to break those bad habits. We all have them. I have them too. And a lot of it is learning to look back over your work once you've finished it. Or before you submit it to someone or give it to someone else.

Look over it and go:

  • What can I do here to make this clear?
  • How will this read for someone else who doesn't know the topic, whatever it might be?
  • Can I make it shorter and clearer by using bullet points, for example.

It’s a matter of just slowing down a little bit and thinking very deliberately about the message we're sending. 

Peter:     If I went to one of your Plain English classes, I'll certainly learn something.

Would I then have to keep practicing it? And then have someone like you, or some other source of information, looking at my work, my writing, each time and go, "Hey, that doesn't make sense. You should do this or what about this?" Is that part of the process?

Leonie:   It does take some time, and it is only through practice. There's lots of online tools you can use as well. There are helpful things like the Grammarly Program. Or other writing tutor, online tutor and tutoring programs that you can also use.

In a big organization it's a good idea to have a few key people trained up. Or find people who have that natural ability. Have those people as go-to people in your section or your area of work. 

I'm thinking local government because that's where I've spent many years. And in each team, it would be great to have someone there as the go-to person for proofing. Because one of the other things about writing well is that we shouldn't be proofing our own work.

You can never see your own mistakes. So it's always good to have someone else to look over it and go "What did you mean by that?" And it doesn't matter how good you are at writing. We all should have someone else to proof our work.

Peter:     So true. My wife is a speech pathologist, and she writes reports of children’s assessments. They're quite long. Sometimes they can be 10 pages, and I get the job of proofing those reports.

And I found she and her colleagues were writing to each other, not the parent of the child. It was an interesting experience for me to see how a profession can really be so inward-looking. And how hard it is for them to look at their own work and go, "Oh, I can make this more easily understood."

Leonie:    Yeah, you're right. And it’s really good to get somebody to proof who does not know your area of expertise because they will hit the snags and go "What does this mean? What does that mean?"

And then it makes you stop and think "Oh, well, I made some assumptions here". And that's part of understanding who your audience is. Write to your reader, not to yourself, not to the person inside your own head. Don’t make assumptions your audience knows what you do about the topic.

How much time to change a clumsy writer into a clear communicator?

Peter:      I guess this question is like how long is a piece of string. But how long would it take for someone who's a clumsy written communicator to become better, become clearer?

Leonie:   That's a hard question, Peter. Well, it depends on how much practice you're willing to do. And how seriously you take it because it. What do they say about breaking habits? To break a habit, you have to do something new, about 28 times or something like that?

Peter:     Something like that. Yes.

Leonie:   So it's going to take a while. And not everyone's going to be natural at this. It's going to be harder for some folks than others. But the more you think about it and make yourself more conscious of some of the concepts we talk about in the Plain English Workshop, you will start to notice examples of writing which are overly wordy or bureaucratic.

And it just soaks in over time. 

Peter:     I guess it depends also on the motivation of the person wanting to become better. If you had the mindset that it’s impolite to dish up written communication which is not clear, you'd be more motivated to master Plain English. 

Leonie:   Yes.

Peter:     Than someone who didn't care about the person they're writing to.

Leonie:   That's right. I remember being quite shocked when I went to that plain language class I did many years ago. Some of the people in the room who were from the Council were quite resistant to it.

And there was some sort of, I don't know if I'd say aggression, but there was definite resistance to this clear style of writing and it was because they felt so comfortable with it.

They felt that it established the Council as an authority. And those bureaucratic phrases were part of the council mindset so it can take a long time to unlearn those habits.  

 Is Plain English ‘dumbing down’ writing? 

Peter:     Is there an attitude that Plain English means you've got to dumb down what you're writing? And use little early Primary School words and things like that?

Leonie:   That sure is and it's a sad misconception actually. Because since the 1980s, the legal world in Australia has been very very, positive about getting things into the Plain language. It’s a very technical field and for legal writers to be drafting in Plain English. That's good proof to me it's not one of those dumbing down situations. 

One of the most common things people say is that it's simplistic. But there's a massive difference between simple and simplistic. If something is simple, it's easy to understand. It's not difficult. It doesn't have unnecessary and tangling words, and it's clear and uncomplicated.

Or it's something simplistic. That's a much more negative word. And the Cambridge Dictionary defines simplistic as characterized by extreme and often misleading simplicity, making something complicated seem simple by ignoring important parts.

And that's not what Plain English is about. You can be very technical in your subject matter, but you can still write in a direct clear style without confusing the reader. 

Peter:     I can understand how Plain English would be useful in a functional sense of getting a message from the writer to the reader. But is it taking the fun out for writer and reader?

Leonie:   Plain English is really well suited to the context of business and business communication and for every day writing to consumers. For example, a lot of marketing and web content is uses Plain English.

You're right. I love beautiful, rich words. I'm a fan of Shakespeare. I love sonnets. I love poetry. I love learning new words I've never seen before.

One author who does that to you is C.S. Lewis. If you ever read C.S. Lewis's nonfiction, you need a dictionary beside you because his language is so rich. And yes, that could be frustrating for a lot of people. But I think it's absolutely wonderful because I just find words and language so fascinating. 

But I would hate to think we're going to lose the richness and the depth of our language because I don't think we should. So we need to cling to those beautiful rich levels of our language and use them in creative ways.

For the everyday person, if they want to know about their latest power bill, then, of course, the clearer and the more direct writing is, the better.

But yes, I must say I'm a bit of a word nerd. So I do actually buy books. I buy books and catch obscure archaic words. And I have loved them, but my analogy is that the type of language you use is like a toolbox. You use the tool which suits the purpose.

So if you want to be rich, and evocative, by all means, use those wonderful words. And poetry is the first thing that springs to mind. But if you want to be clear and direct, well, then you choose a different writing tool. And that's the way I see it.              

Plain English vs creative writing

Peter:     It sounds like Plain English is at one end of the spectrum and creative writing is at the other end.

Leonie:   Well, you know what, I wouldn't even say that some of my favorite poems are actually minimal in the way they are written. But they're so deeply evocative because of the way they've been phrased or the choice of the word. So a very, very rich word, but is written in a simple way.

Even creative writers are always looking to cut excess wordiness and to bring depth and richness to the writing. Sometimes a long, wordy, descriptive sentence can be very weak. Whereas a few well-chosen powerful words can have a much greater impact.

So even in the creative world, there are writers who advocate a spare style of writing. 

Peter:     Yes, you've actually got me thinking about Fawlty Towers, the British comedy TV series created by John Cleese. The script writers seem to have written removed all sorts of unnecessary words.  And they made it so punchy and so clear.

When we're talking about Plain English we started talking about it in writing. But it strikes me that Plain English can be useful for all sorts of things like movie scripts, writing a speech, writing web pages, all of that stuff. Am I on the mark there?  

Leonie:    For sure. I mean it’s clear communication style, and we think of it as writing only but of course, it's speech as well. And this is why Winston Churchill's speeches were so well received. He was right. He would speak in that style that went straight to the listener.

It was everyday language. But it went to their hearts immediately because he was speaking in a way that they understood and related to straight away. They were powerful speeches and yet they were quite simple.

Peter:     Yeah. I think of former President Ronald Reagan in the USA. They called him the great communicator. And he was a little in that Churchillian mould of using simple but quite powerful words and short sentences too. 

Leonie:   That is true, of course, Martin Luther King springs to mind.

Peter:     Yes, of course.

Using Plain English in teaching

Leonie:   But not all of us have wonderful speech. I have done a bit of speech writing in communications and, and yes, same thing and also in training. I mean, for me, it's all about speaking clearly.

While working in a library, you deal with people from every walk of life. I got tangled up with retraining seniors. Doing computer classes for all the people who had never even sat in front of a computer or had never even used a mouse.

This was a fascinating experience for me. And I grew to love it. Because I realized I had this ability to speak in a way they could understand.

And my goal for them was, I could see the fear in them, you know, and they were so brave, and they would come to the library, and they'll be absolutely terrified of these computers. 

And I thought, look, I don't need to be an IT specialist, I need to just explain this to them in a way they can understand. And so I didn't use any jargon. I just tried to put them at ease and slow it right down.

And to the extent they didn't even understand why they needed to press the Enter key on the keyboard after entering a search term in Google. So it's a matter of reminding them every time "so you can now type the word ‘rose’ into the search box, and then press Enter."

And for most of us, we would not even think you would have to tell someone to press the Enter key. 

Peter:     So that's a nice example of using Plain English in a teaching role. Not just in a writing but also in speaking.

More Plain English examples

Peter:      Do you have any other examples you could give us on a sort of before and after Plain English? 

Leonie:   I've got some examples here of some good before and afters.

But first, getting back to the computer; it's crucial you use everyday terms for things like that.

So I would explain Google. The concept of a search engine is a bit of jargon they couldn't understand. So I just said, "Look, it's like a dog that goes and fetches." So if you type your word into the box, you're saying, "OK, Google, go and fetch me some information about this word."

And they understood that Google is like a go fetch. You can see the penny drop.

And for me, and for anyone who trains, this is the most wonderful feeling when you see them smile and you see the fear going away. And you see them walk away feeling really excited to come back next week and try again. 

So yeah, I say "I love training."  Because of this Plain English thing is it's because I must have a knack for it. And it's something people respond well to.

But when it comes to some before and afters, let me have a look here. I do have some examples.

Here’s one about learning. With Plain English, it's about removing pompous words and excessive words. And words that are not helping and not cutting to the chase, so to speak.

Here's the before sentence: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of a child's ongoing learning process. 

The after is: Children need good schools if they are to learn properly

Peter:     Oh, yes.

Leonie:   And it's quite a contrast, isn't it? And when you go back to the first one, you go, "Yeah, now I can sort of see that but yeah." Would you like another one? 

Peter:     Yes, please. 

Leonie:   Okay, and here's a common one we have all seen.

Here's the before: If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars, we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.

Peter:     What's the after? What's the Plain English version?

Leonie:  The after is:  If you have any questions, please ask.

Peter:     So nice. So clean and it is simple words, it's far fewer words.

Leonie:   It is. And one of the things is, keep your sentences shorter. Now, I don't like making such a prescriptive statement because a well-written sentence can be longer.

And you do need a variety of sentence length. That's a readability issue, which is also a interesting area.

So what they do suggest is 15 to 20 words per sentence on average, which means you can have a nice short sentence.

And you can contrast that with a slightly longer one. But variety is usually the desired goal. So when you're reading, there's a lovely rhythm and there's a bit of flow so it almost becomes an artistic thing.

Peter:     I guess you don't want to fill your longer sentences with all these fancy words.

Leonie:   That's exactly right. I have a lovely quote here from a lawyer. This is from the Law Reform Commission of Victoria and this is an article that was written in the 1980s.

But I really like this, where he says

"Plain English is a full version of the language using patterns of normal adult English. It is not a type of basic English or baby tool. While documents that are converted to Plain English may be described as simplified; they are simplified in the sense of being rid of an entangled convoluted language."

And that's the point.

Tips for using Plain English

Peter:     Well, you know I'm a convert. Can you give our listeners some tips to help them write and speak and communicate in Plain English?

So the sense of what they are intending gets across to the audience?

Leonie:   Sure. There are some habits we all have. We tend to use phrases when one word would do, and that's a sure fire way to have too much wordiness.

As an aside, one of the things I think of every time when we're talking about too many words in a sentence is the movie Amadeus. This going back a bit. Probably to the 1980s. Do you remember the movie?

Peter:     Yes. 

Leonie:   You know, the one and only part of that movie I still remember so very clearly, is when Mozart is speaking with the Emperor after his big performance. And Mozart says, "Did it please you?"

And the Emperor's "Oh, yes, yes, it was… it was wonderful, but …" And he hesitates. He's trying to say something and he says, "Well, I think there were just, how shall I say it? I think there were just too many notes."

And poor Amadeus is so offended, and he replies, “There were neither too many nor too few”.

That springs to mind every time I think of sentences that have too many words. And it's the same concept, like we want neither too many nor too few. We want exactly the right amount of words. 

So, on that note, here's something we all do, “We are going to conduct an analysis”. But we could just be analyzing, couldn't we?

We present a report or we just report.

We do an assessment, but really, we could just say we assess.

Just say "we will review that" instead of "we will conduct a review."

So these are ways you have all these excess words in sentences you don't need. We do them automatically without thinking about it. So that's why it does take a bit of effort to break some of those habits. 

The other big one is using active voice rather than passive voice. It sounds a bit like a pompous grammatical term, but it's all about the verbs. Think of a verb as a bulldozer. Verbs have the power. And when we use passive voice, we really dilute the power of our sentences. 

Peter:     What is a passive voice? What's that? I'm sure you're going to tell me. 

Leonie:   I am going to. A passive voice is where we dilute it by saying on "The ball was kicked over the fence." Instead of saying "He kicked the ball over the fence."  So you've got the ball is being kicked by somebody. It's a lot weaker than saying, "John kicked the ball over the fence." 

Peter:     Yes.

Leonie:   It's a lot more active. We do it all the time. "Your application has been received by our office" as opposed to "We have received your application."

So passive voice can really create distance. And it can sound a little bit evasive at times.

But it's not always bad. Sometimes you need a passive voice to protect, to be tactful for example. So if you're trying to protect somebody's reputation or not offend, you might say, "Oh, well, look, you know, it wasn't, that task wasn't completed on time." And that's a nice way of not putting the blame on someone. 

Peter:     So instead of saying, "You didn't do this on time."

Leonie:   Exactly. Explaining it to somebody else, and if I’m protecting my colleague, I might say, to my manager, "So I'm sorry, we weren't able to be done or something like that" without saying, "Well, John didn't do it."

So it can be a nice thing to use at times. You do need passive voice sometimes, but we tend to use it too much. 

It drains the power out of our sentences. That’s something people often aren't aware of. I’ll tell you who's really good at passive voice.   Children are!!

If the boys have been playing with the ball inside while mum was at work and something got broken, they're not going to say, "I kicked the ball and I broke your vase mum".

They're going to say, "Oh, the vase got broken."

That's a passive voice because you're not saying "By whom? Who broke the vase?" It's a really evasive way to speak. Politicians are the other people who do it very well.

Peter:     Is there another rule in everything you're saying? It sounds to me to get away from the passive voice you’re putting in a real person, a real subject like "I broke the vase. He kicked the ball."

Leonie:   Exactly. It's the doer of the action. So I'm having a scroll through here to find another example.

The subject is the person doing the action. The verb is the action. And the object is usually the thing that is acted upon.

Peter painted the house. That's an active sentence, because we have the subject doing the action. Peter painted.  And the house is the object. But in a passive version it would be the house was painted by Peter.

Peter:     So the first one is, it's more pleasing. It's direct, it's simple. And it gives me a sense of some action. 

Leonie:   Yes, yes. And there's a very funny little cartoon and I love this about passive voices. A little chicken is staring at his computer screen. And the computer's saying "An error has occurred. I'm saying this in the passive voice to avoid taking any personal responsibility”.

It's a great way to avoid responsibility because you're not saying who did the action when speaking in passive voice.

Apps to help with Plain English

Peter:     Wow, there’s so much to this Plain English, I’m learning. And you mentioned earlier there are some apps which can help a Plain English aspirant to get better at being plainer? 

Leonie:   Yes.

Peter:     Yes. Can you mention any of those for our audience?

Leonie:   I must say I haven't done a big investigation, but I do find the Grammarly app is quite useful. And it's something people can download and use with their word processing programs.

And the other one is the Hemingway Editor. Hemingway tends to pick you up on your passive voice usage. So that's a really good way if you're struggling with the passive voice. It's a good way to get on top of it by using something like that. 

But these computerized programs are only so useful because they are robotic. And they don't always understand the context. Quite often I override the Grammarly correction.

They’re not really a replacement for the human brain but they're very, very helpful.

But we know what we're trying to say, We know the context of our writing. Sometimes Grammarly will try to correct something I don't want to correct it. So you still have to apply your own knowledge.  That's why it's good to handle it yourself, as well.

Peter:    Is Hemingway the one where you paste your Word document into it, and it tells you whether it's easy to read or not. Is that correct?

Leonie:   Yes, I haven't used it a lot. But yes, and it colour codes things. Adverbs are another one most clear writers like to stay away from and even this applies to novelists. Adverbs meaning quickly, quietly or things that say how something was done.

Sometimes adverbs can really get in the way of a clear sentence. Hemingway picks you up on your adverb usage, which is quite useful.

And certainly the passive voice and by colour coding, and it makes it quick and easy to see where the problems are. 

Plain English on street signs

When I present, I like to have fun. I like to use some examples of street signs and road signs and things like because they're so incredibly funny. I'm sure we've all seen them.

There are so many funny signs out there. And you understand, as it can really give people a good laugh.

I mean, there's actually a street sign I have seen on the internet that says, "Please try to walk without walking," for example.

My gosh, who even posted that sign? How did it get through?

And then there's an hilarious sign in a park that says:

People are Eating Children in this Area. Please leash your dog and clean up after them.

It's a very strange sign because it sounds like they're saying people are eating children in this area. Please leash your dog and clean up after them.

What they're meaning is:

 People are eating and there are children in this area. Please leash your dog and clean up after them.

And I'm thinking who's them? Is it the children or the people because there's only one dog (singular) and clean up after them. The whole sign is incredibly confusing and it's so very funny. We all know what they're trying to say. But it was a massive fail.

This is ambiguity and is another thing that crops up when you're writing. You've got to try to eliminate the ambiguous meaning of what you're saying.

Peter:     You reminded me of something I've heard before. When you have written something, it's a good idea to go into a “pronoun hunt”. You will often find ambiguous pronouns like ‘them’. ‘Them’ could be the kids or the dogs. And so it's worthwhile rewriting it.

Leonie:   It is, it's such a funny sign and there is another one I like. I don't think people realize how important punctuation mark can be. "Full stops can actually save lives." Peter, did you know that?

Here’s one of my favourite signs, and it says:  Hunters Please Use Caution When Hunting Pedestrians Using Walk Trails.

It should be a full stop after ‘hunting’:  Hunters Please Use Caution When Hunting.

And then a new sentence:  Pedestrians Using Walk Trails.

It just looks like they're saying:  Please use caution when you're hunting pedestrians on the walking trails.

Leonie:   A full stop could have saved those pedestrians. It's very tragic!

Peter:     So lovely. Look, there's obviously a lot in this whole Plain English thing. We can talk about this for a long time. But I think we've come to the end of our episode here.

But before we wrap up, Leonie, can you tell me how people could contact you if they wanted to learn more about Plain English? Or if they wanted to find out how to get on your Plain English courses? 

Leonie:   Yes, they can email me at leonie@PlainEnglishMatters.com.au  That’s all one word without any punctuation. Or phone on 0417770309. 

Peter:     That’s an Australian number. If someone from outside Australia wanted to phone your number, they need to put +61 in front of it. 

Leonie:   Yeah, +61 That's right. 

Peter:     Leonie, thank you so much. Fascinating subject. And let's see if we can talk some more about this in another episode. 

Leonie:   I look forward to it. Thanks so much, Peter. 


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