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Analysing The Characteristics Of Plain English English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1993 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Origin of Plain English. In 1971, the National Council of Teachers of English in the U.S. formed the Public Doublespeak Committee. In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon created Plain English momentum when he decreed that the “Federal Register be written in ‘layman’s terms”. Industry soon followed. In 1973, Citibank converted a promissory note to plain English, a change that”brought great prestige to Citibank, which was seen as a leader in improving consumer relations”(Williams 1999, P.3)

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The next major event in the U.S. history of plain English occurred in 1978, when U.S. President Jimmy Carter issued Executive Orders 12,044 and 12.174. These were intended to make government regulations cost-effective and easy to understand by those who were required to comply with them. In 1981, U.S. President Ronald Regan rescinded those orders. Nevertheless, many continued their efforts to simplify documents; by 1991, eight states had passed statutes related to plain English. In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton issued Presidential Memorandum on plain language, requesting the Federal Government’s writing must be in plain English.

The plain- English movement has also been active outside the U.S. In 1982, the British government issued a White Paper ordering departments for the first time to count their forms, abolish unnecessary ones, clarify the rest, and report their progress annually to the prime minister. In the foreword to a book by the Plain English Campaign, a private company in the U.K. , Chrissie Mather notes that they have “attacked unclear legal language for the last fifteen years.”(1996)

Proponents of plain English have also been active in Australia since 1976 and in Canada since1988 (Shriver 1997; Berry 1995). Other countries with plain English efforts include Sweden, South Africa, and New Zealand. (Baldwin, 1999)

The Benefits of Plain English

The benefits of plain English are both tangible and intangible. Generally, there are three benefits. First, plain English can get the message across in the shortest time possible; second, more people are able to understand the message; third, there is less chance that the document will be misunderstood, so less time will be spent explaining it to people. And if the document gives instructions, readers are more likely to understand them and follow them correctly. In short, plain English can help save time, personal resources and money.

The Criticism of Plain English

The major criticism of plain English is that its guidelines do not have sufficient research to back them up. This essentially translates to “does plain English work?” .There are two points to consider in this area.

The first is whether guidelines are based on empirical research. It is true hat the majority of plain language resources do not cite research since the majority of them are directed toward the general public. If research is mentioned, it is generally without specific citations. However, of the resources I reviewed, the Document Design Center’s Guidelines for document designers has no peer in this area. For each of their 25 guidelines, they provide a section titled”what the research says”. One such guideline is the suggestion to “avoid whiz deletions”. A whiz deletion is the absence of introductory text for subordinate clauses. The Guidelines offer the comparison between the sentence “The director wants the report which was written by the Home Office.” and “The director wants the report written by the Home Office” (Felker and others,1981,pp39½ž40).This guideline was based on direct research done by Charrow. In their extensive study of jury instructions, these authors found that whiz deletions made jury instructions harder to understand.

The second issue regarding plain-English guidelines and research is that actual practice does not appear to follow the guidelines. For example, a group of researchers asserted that the Document Design Center’s guidelines about whiz deletions was not valid, since whiz deletions were a common occurrence in( presumably) well-written documents.(Hcklin,Curtin and Graham 1991). This discrepancy between guidelines and practice was also illustrated by van der Wararde’s study in Technical Communication (1999). A review of 330 documents found that the majority did not follow standard guidelines with regard to typographic dimension (x-height and line spacing). Does this mean that the guidelines themselves are invalid? Perhaps. But among other possible explanations for this finding, van der Warrde considered that”legibility and attractiveness are not the criteria that are most often used in practice”and that criteria such as cost, standardization, or production deadlines might have more impact on document choices. Or as Redish and Rosen suggest,”Real-world documents are compromises”(1991)

The Principles of Plain English

Generally speaking, there are two principles as the guidelines of plain English. The first one is conciseness and simplicity. In his book- The Elements of Style, William Stunk said, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” In addition, Plain English Campaign in Australia defines plain English as “good, clear writing which communicates as simply and effectively as possible.” Minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship of Canada referred in plain language:” Clear and simple that plain English should use straightforward, concrete and familiar words to make it concise and easy to understand.”

The second one is fluidity and continuity, which means how to organize information from the point of plain English. About this, the Minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship of Canada thought plain English writing was a technique of organizing information in ways that make sense to the reader.

These two principles can make sure the needs of the reader are matched with the needs of the writer, leading to effective, efficient communication. Actually, these two principles are also the reasons why plain English has been so popular in recent years.

Characteristics of Non-Literary Translation

The Oxford English dictionary defines literature as”writing which has claimed to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect.”In order to demarcate’literary texts’from’non-literary texts’, scholars have applied some criteria. They are fictionality, specialized language, lack of pragmatic function and ambiguity.


One characteristic featureof literary texts arguably is their fictionality. People usually agree that literary texts, even if they attempt to represent reality in some form or another, are ultimately products of a writer’s imagination and that at least the characters and their conversations are fictitious.

Specialized Language

People often say that literary language is ‘special’ and it differs considerably from normal everyday language. As the Russian Formalists maintained in the early twentieth century, literary texts make use of language in such a way that it becomes strange and unfamiliar in a given context. They called this process ‘defamiliarization’.

Lack of Pragmatic Function

A piece of literary writing, on the other hand, need not have been intended by the author for any specific purpose. It sometimes seems as though literature was just written into time and space, to nobody in particular and without any function. However, non-literary texts may have a more clearly defined and generally agreed-upon function.


People generally accept the view that literary texts are far more ambiguous and thus often more complicated than non-literary texts. If one reads a recipe, for example, or a time-table or an instruction manual, the meaning expressed in these texts is presumed to be more or less fixed and not open to interpretation. Nonetheless, different people can have different understandings of the same novel. Literary texts indeed must have some quality which makes them more’open’than non-literary ones. One can say that literary texts always express meaning or different levels or in different layers.

According to those four criterias, literature texts include fiction, poetry, drama and so on. In a word, literary works are aimed at reflecting the social activities by portraying images or expressing personal feelings, which most of the non-literary works depend on logic thinking.

Their major characteristics will be analyzed from the following perspectives: content, style, translators’, audiences’, and function.

As for their content, non-literary texts are not fabricated. Its materials are usually real and evidence is credible, so our translation shall be accurate. If we discover some mistakes of the original texts, we’d better correct it or give explanation to it according to our translation purpose. However, we cannot do the same to the literary works.

As for their style, though the media of all translations is languages, the languages used for non-literary translation put more emphasis on directness and fidelity. Even though some works of popular sciences vivid, it is used for explaining a scientific problem clearly. Therefore, plain diction may be more suitable to non-literary translation. Literary grace is not in the major pursuit.

From the writers’ perspective, all work is the result of thinking. Compared with the imaginary thinking for literary grace, non-literary works are to express the meaning accurately.

From the audiences’ perspective, they focus more on its information, not its artistic style or aesthetic function. It suggests that the translation may put more weight on providing information. Of course, the translation should not be too unnatural or awkward, or say, the translation should not be of a quality of translationese.

For example: The success rate of up to 90% claimed for lie detector is misleadingly attractive.(Cheng, 2006)

Translation: 测谎器高达90%的成功率¼Œæ®è¯´æœ‰è¯¯å¯¼æ€çš„吸引力。

Here, “misleadingly” is an adverb signifying a translation in meaning. The translation interpreted it as an adjective to stuff it in the sentence. It could be improved as :据簼Œ 测谎器的成功率高达90%¼Œè¿™é¢‡æœ‰å¸å¼•åŠ›¼Œå´å®¹æ˜“把人引入æ­é€”。

As for their functions, the goal of non-literary works is to provide information. Therefore, translators should spend more efforts on delivering information, and then consider the elegance of languages.

For instance, I have encountered a sentence,”To all to whom these presents shall come, greeting.” Logging on the Internet, I find that the most similar version of this sentence comes from Treaty of Nanjing, “To All and Singular to whom these presents shall come, greeting.”One of its translations just expresses the meaning of greeting and nothing else:”å¤å®¶å¥½¼”Of course, it can be translated as “致接å-此礼的诸位¼Œä½ ä»¬å¥½¼

“¼Œit sounds good. However, some version translated it into”对这些即将到来和出席的所有人致以亲切的é-®å€™”¼Œwhich is wrong. For “presents” here in its plural form can not be translated as an adverb which means “attended”. This case tells us when we do the translation of non-literary works, we should provide correct information.


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