Plain English and easy English: the key to clear communication

“When you take into account that it is crucial for humans to take in an adequate and sufficient amount of water to avoid dehydration and ensure survival, it seems appropriate to provide a sufficient number of fluid containers near the person concerned.” – Paradoxically, many texts that are aimed at a wide audience are often written in an unnecessarily complicated way. From doctor’s reports and general terms and conditions for mobile contracts to election manifestos of political parties. Many people find these kinds of texts heavy going and quickly give up on reading them. So how on earth do people feel when they have a cognitive impairment or low literacy skills, speak very little English or have difficulties in understanding complex texts for some other reason?

Breaking down language barriers

Just imagine you have limited mobility and want to get to the first floor of a building. But the building doesn’t have a ramp or a lift, just a staircase. That makes it impossible for you to reach the first floor. It’s the same when it comes to information. If information is presented in difficult or complex language, people with low literacy skills or a limited understanding of the language simply can’t understand what it means. Accessibility and inclusion also entail the removal of language barriers, with information being made available in a language that is easy to understand.
In particular, authorities and other institutions should offer texts in plain or even easy English so that everyone can access important information. Plain English and easy English are both language variants in their own right and both of them help people understand better.

Plain is not easy

Easy English is the simplest form. It is aimed at people with learning difficulties, an impairment or cognitive limitations. Plain English, on the other hand, is somewhere between easy English and standard English. Its target group is larger. That’s because it’s aimed at people who can read but find complex texts difficult to understand. That could well be people with English as a second or foreign language or people who aren’t familiar with a particular specialist area.

What you have to look out for with easy English

You can recognise easy English from its simple sentence structure as well as clear and understandable words. Special characters such as %, & and even inverted commas are left out. And the texts don’t include long or difficult words. Where they cannot be avoided, they are explained.
Phrasing should be as precise as possible. So, instead of saying, “Use public transport” you say, “Use the bus or train”.
Using subjunctives can also make reading difficult. So, “You would like to take part in the event if you had time” becomes, “You want to go to the event if there is enough time”.

A well-structured and clear layout is also important. Subheadings, paragraphs and bulleted lists give a text structure. An easy-to-read font such as Verdana in 14 pt is recommended. Easily understandable pictures and graphics should also be included in each paragraph to visually support and clarify the content.

And we would certainly recommend having a text in easy English checked by someone affected.

Special characteristics of plain English

Unlike easy English, plain English looks and sounds like conventional forms of writing. There are hardly any differences between plain and standard English. The same formatting can be used as for standard text. A text in plain English is often longer because specialist terms and abstract concepts have to be explained and adapted to suit the target audience. As with easy English, there are special rules governing plain English at word, sentence and text level, although these do not have to be adhered to strictly in the case of plain English. Compared to easy English, you can also use a greater range of vocabulary, and the structure of the sentences can be more complex.

On everyone’s lips – who communicates in plain or easy English?

Authorities and government offices: It’s important that all citizens are able to understand the information in official communications. Plain or easy English is often used by authorities and government offices to make information more accessible.

Companies: Companies are increasingly offering information in plain or easy English so they can better reach customers with learning difficulties and language barriers. Particularly in areas such as the insurance and financial sector, it’s important that customers can understand information and the conditions of a contract.

Educational institutions: Schools and other educational institutions are increasingly providing teaching material in plain or easy English.

The media: Easy and plain English are becoming increasingly popular in the media. Complex topics are simpler to understand if they are explained using simple words and short sentences.

Cultural institutions: Museums, theatres and other cultural institutions are also increasingly using easy and plain English to make their offerings accessible for as many people as possible.

Language variants in their own right

Language professionals may find the idea of simplifying language to such an extent over the top. Lovers of the subjunctive or the passive might well despair when they read that they should be avoided in favour of simplicity. But anyone who instead sees plain and easy English as special forms of the language intended for very specific target groups can consider learning and using these language variants as a challenge – and challenges are what make our (professional) lives more interesting…

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