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1. English that is straightforward and easy to understand: ‘Which ye shalle here in pleyne Englische’ (Chaucer's Dreme, 1500).

2. Blunt, no-nonsense language: ‘If we double the thickness, the outside will be but one twenty-fifth as useful, or in plain English, nearly useless’ (US government report, 1868).

3. Strong or foul language: ‘With Princess Anne, who was apt to express herself in plain English when she found herself upside down in a water jump surrounded by clicking Nikons, there were some explosions’ (Profile, Observer, 3 Sept. 1989).

4. In the later 20c, a term closely associated with an at-first diffuse but increasingly focused international movement against overly complex and misleading, especially bureaucratic, usage: ‘Award winners for plain English included the Association of British Insurers for the booklet “About insurance—some key facts”’ (Plain English Campaign Magazine 26, June 1989).

Historical background

In the 17–18c, the British middle and upper classes generally fovoured an ornate style of language, but towards the end of the 18c, as the Romantic movement and the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, this ‘Augustan’ style was modified. Even so, however, English prose generally continued to be highly Latinate and often difficult and intimidating for people who had received little more than a basic education. For this and other reasons, purists and revivalists such as the dialectologist William Barnes advocated the use of a more native or Germanic English, arguing for such words as fore-elders instead of ancestors and birdstow rather than aviary. This approach did not, however, necessarily make usage clearer, because many Saxonisms were as difficult to learn and use as their classical equivalents. A late form of purism or nativism found expression in the 1920s in C. K. Ogden's BASIC ENGLISH, which was intended to embody the virtues of plain usage; its vocabulary of 850 words is largely Germanic. In the later 20c, however, advocates of a plainer English have not proposed the native rather than the Latinate, but rather avoiding any usage, whatever its source or inspiration, that confuses and misleads readers or listeners; the demonology of the plain English movements includes such opponents as bafflegab, gobbledygook, doublespeak, and psychobabble.

Plain English movements

In recent decades there have been significant campaigns promoting plain English in the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. The terms plain English movements and plain language movements cover all drives towards the use of simpler language, especially in official, legal, and commercial writing (as in forms, contracts, business letters, and descriptions of products) and medical usage (including labels on medicinal products). In the UK, campaigning tends to be from the bottom up, a grass-roots activism with some official support; in the US, it has tended to be from the top down, especially government-initiated moves with popular approval.

The name Plain English Campaign or PEC (without the definite article) stands for a pressure group in the UK that campaigns for plain English while also offering commercial and other services that help sustain its momentum and funds. These services provide a means through which government, business, and individuals can obtain help in writing and checking plain-English texts (including forms and leaflets for public use) and document design that makes the transmission of information easier. Another UK organization in the Plain Language Commission. In the US, the Double-speak Committee of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) offers annual Doublespeak Awards, ironic tributes focusing on unsatisfactory and evasive language, especially as used by government (first awards, 1974). In the UK, PEC and the National Consumer Council present annual awards both to encourage organizations that have met their standards in the use of plain English and to draw critical attention to some that have not, by means of Golden Bull Awards for particularly unsatisfactory texts (first awards, 1982). PEC has also launched a scheme through which organizations can seek an endorsement of the language and design used in their documents. This takes the form of the Crystal Mark, a logo-like symbol displayed on leaflets, products, and the like.