by Mary McCauley
Back when I first began formal training in plain English, I ran into difficulty trying to access an online course so I emailed the course provider, the Plain Language Commission. To my surprise and great delight I received a reply from its director and Oxford Guide to Plain English author himself, Mr Martin Cutts. I already had a copy of the last edition of the book and found it a wonderful resource in my daily work. I particularly like its personable tone and helpful approach. This is not reserved for the book alone – in his emails the author was equally approachable and friendly. All the more noteworthy considering Martin Cutts is a heavyweight in the plain English movement, having worked in the field since the 1970s. He co-founded the UK’s Plain English Campaign in 1979 and he is a director of the UK’s Plain Language Commission. In 2013 he won the Christine Mowatt Plain Language Achievement Award, an international award recognising an outstanding contribution to advancing plain language.
Essential reference for plain English
Cutts’s Oxford Guide to Plain English is an essential reference book for anyone interested in plain language. According to the author it has one key aim: ‘to help you write and set out essential information more clearly’. To help you do this it gives clear guidelines for writing in plain English – not only in terms of the wording, but also the planning and organisation of the content.
The essential information that Cutts refers to includes ‘business and government letters, emails, webpages, and reports; consumer contracts; labels and product instructions; leaflets and forms on tax, health, welfare, and legal rights; parking signs; legal judgments; and rules, regulations, and laws’ – content that helps, as he puts it, to ‘oil the engines of industry, commerce, and administration’. Such documents may seem unexciting and dull to many people but they contain ‘information that, if misunderstood or half understood, disadvantages people, oppresses them, or – at the least – wastes their time and money’. Surely not the objectives of anyone setting out to write that information.
The book, therefore, will be of particular help to those creating content in the public sector. It’s jampacked with hundreds of ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples of public sector writing, demonstrating the difference plain English writing and editing makes. Also included is a helpful plain English word list (for example, using ‘repay’ instead of ‘reimburse’, or ‘enough’ instead of ‘sufficient’) that you’ll want to bookmark. It gives practical advice on avoiding clichés, jargon, legalese and what I like to call ‘publicese’, that special language of the public sector that is hard to overcome (despite having left employment in this sector over a decade ago I still find myself occasionally lapsing into its lingo).
What’s new in this edition?
- Improved and extended index: The index in the last edition was just four pages long, but it now extends to more than seventeen, offering improved searchability.
- Additional appendix: The guide now includes a short and interesting history of plain English (Cutts considers Chaucer the originator of the plain English movement).
- Additional guidelines: The previous edition listed twenty-five guidelines, but this one has thirty. While the previous edition included a ‘summary’ of the guidelines, it was really just a list of them. Much more useful in this new edition is both a list of the full thirty guidelines and an improved summary, with examples, of the twelve main guidelines.
- Guidance on inclusive language: The chapter on sexist language has been updated to include advice on using inclusive language.
- A new design: I like the switch from the navy-coloured font in the last edition to the more standard black font in this one. I’m not sure if it’s the colour change that’s made such a big difference, but overall I prefer the layout of this edition. It seems clearer, with more bold text and shaded panels to make content stand out, and the headings are clearer too. And for those tempted to sneak an advance peak at the answers to the quizzes, the move to setting these answers upside down on the page may or may not be a welcome change!
However, while I like all the above changes, I was disappointed to see that in the sources and notes section towards the end of the book there is still a limited list of general sources. I would like to have seen a more extensive list, for example, more plain language organisations, publications, websites, tools and resources. These would be of particular use to editorial professionals.
The case for using plain English undoubtably grows stronger. Here in Ireland, in the Programme for Government 2020 the Irish government has committed to introducing ‘a plain language requirement on all public service communication so people can understand information the first time they read or hear it’. More than ever there’s a need for writers and editors to understand how best to apply plain English concepts. In this new edition of the Oxford Guide to Plain English Martin Cutts sets out an excellent approach to doing just that. It is an essential reference book for anyone interested in plain English.
Oxford Guide to Plain English (fifth edition) by Martin Cutts was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780198844617.
AFEPI Ireland received a review copy of this book from Oxford University Press.
Mary McCauley is an editor, plain English editor and proofreader. She specialises in working with businesses, and government and public sector bodies. She has 15 years’ business research and administrative experience, almost entirely in the public sector, and started her editorial business Mary McCauley Proofreading in 2012. She is a Full Member of AFEPI Ireland, an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a member of Plain Language Association International. Connect with Mary on LinkedIn or Twitter.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.