Plain Language Myths

MYTH

Plain language is just condensing the amount of text and using shorter words.

REALITY

Plain language is more than just making your text shorter. Among other things, it is about choosing words and arranging them so that your meaning is clear to the biggest number of people. Sometimes you will need to write more sentences and use longer words to make your meaning clear.

“Even though hamburger is a three syllable word, it is the best word for its purpose. While ilk is just one syllable, it is not plain. Aspect is short, but in many contexts it sounds bookish or too formal.” (Cheryl Stephens)[1]

MYTH

Plain language documents are only for people who cannot read very well.

REALITY

Plain language documents help everyone read and gather information more quickly and more accurately. People with high literacy do not want to read confusing or convoluted writing! Plain language saves busy people time, money, and annoyance.

MYTH

People will not take documents seriously if they are written in plain language.

REALITY

People want to understand what they are reading. Therefore, your goal in writing should be clear communication. Studies have even shown that plain language writing can make people think you are more intelligent.

“No one will ever complain because you made something too easy to understand.” (Tim Radford)[2]

MYTH

Plain language is too simplistic for use in legal documents and contracts.

REALITY

The point of legal writing is to be precise, clear, and unambiguous. Wordy, rambling legalese is hard to understand and creates confusion and ambiguity. Many legal firms have adopted a plain language approach because their clients and judges want to understand what they’re reading.

“Plain language helps expose errors. In contrast, legalese tends to hide inconsistencies and ambiguities, because errors are harder to find.” (Peter Butt)[3]


  1. Stephens, C. (2010). Plain language in plain English. Lulu.com.
  2. Radford, T. (2011, January 19). A manifesto for the simple scribe - my 25 commandments for journalists. The Guardian (UK). https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2011/jan/19/manifesto-simple-scribe-com-mandments-journalists.
  3. Butt, P. (2001, June/July). Legalese versus plain language. Amicus Curiae. doi: https://doi.org/10.14296/ac.v2001i35.1332.

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