Stephen Fry and the Plainness of Plain English

Last Monday Stephen Fry and Charlotte Green hosted a show talking about the importance of plain English. While everyone agreed that it was important information was easy to understand, no one could agree on what plain English was. It also brought up questions on how you determine how easy text is to understand. Well, this is where the idea of plain English got complicated as we learnt that this was done by readability calculators.

There are many ways of calculating readability which, while different all work to the same standard. The general rule for a good readability level is to use short words and sentences that are between 15-25 words long. The main part of the show was about a readability test used to see who was best at writing information simply.

The study compared text written by a group of parents whose children suffered from the same disease, a government leaflet and text written by a marketer. Coming out on top was the marketer, with text that was simple to understand and gave the reader exactly the information they needed. The Government leaflet did well, people understood the general idea of what they were being told; but the parents group struggled to get their point across.

The reason behind this clear difference was simple. The parents were far too close to the subject matter. Like most specialists they used complex language to explain topics which while important, weren’t necessarily essential for the reader to know. The government information was useful and did well; however, it contained a lot of jargon meaning the reader needed help in understanding parts of it. The marketer came out on top, because of their training. They were able to filter out the non essential facts and provide the reader with exactly what they needed at the time.

So despite the complex measurements for simplicity, and the problems defining it, writing in plain English is pretty easy. You need to keep your words simple and sentences short. By putting in all the time and effort required to revise your work, you’ll help keep your writing inclusive and easy to read. Or, you could just hire a marketer; they are pretty good at writing.

Listen to the full show on BBC iPlayer

Fun Fact: This document has a SMOG readability level of 16.4, meaning we could expect someone as young as 11 to understand what has been written.

The Plain English Campaign offers plenty of easy to read guides to help you to improve your website text.