Your English Success is proud to have as today’s post a guest appearance by Cheryl Stephens, of Building Rapport, the plain language blog. Cheryl is a leader in the field of plain language communication, and provides training and workshops to clients all over North America. She is here today promoting her new book, Plain Language Legal Writing
Back in 70s, plain English experts advised us to use plain Anglo-Saxon English rather than words with Latin roots, because Anglo words were considered to be clearer and easier to understand. This advice is still repeated.
Global shifts in population have changed the reader audience. Is it still the best choice to pick a word with Anglo-Saxon punch, or should we choose from words with Latin roots, which may be better understood by people with a first language other than English? “House” is a classic, basic Anglo word, but a native Spanish speaker may have an easier time with “residence,” which comes from the Latin, as does residencia(italicize), a Spanish word. As we consider both the ideas and the make-up of the reading audience, what benefits might we gain from being open to the use of Latin-based words?
And while we are reconsidering our word choice, let's think about the use of negative forms. The negative forms are not going to be on the early vocabulary lists for people learning English as a second or third language. Even if the non-native speaker understands the idea that un- indicates a negative, it can be hard to pick up a subtle modifier when you're working to understand the language. If something is "incorrect," someone may just hear “correct.” It's better to say it is wrong. If an act is illegal or unlawful, better to say it is "not legal" or "not lawful".
Or just avoid all negative prefixes, and use a positive word, like "criminal" instead of "not legal", whenever you can.
It's your responsibility to make sure you are understood. After you've done all you can to make your language understandable, you can improve your chances further by developing some feedback requests, like asking, "Tell me what that means to you," or "How would you explain this to someone else?"
These steps will go a long way toward improving communications. Learn more about plain language at my website: Plain Language Wizardry.
Thank you, Cheryl, and we wish you continued success with your new book.