Plain language and the myth of “dumbing it down”

The biggest favour you can do your readers is write in plain language. You can also do your workplace a huge favour by advocating for plain language in everything it says to its customers (and within its own walls). But when you say, “hey, this policy is too hard to read”, there’s a common response you’re probably sick of hearing:

“We don’t want to dumb it down.”

This is true. You don’t want to insult your readers’ intelligence, or treat them like children. But there’s no relationship between plain language and dumbing it down.

  • The active voice isn’t dumber than the passive voice.
  • Short words aren’t dumber than long words.
  • Short sentences aren’t dumber than long sentences.
  • Common phrases aren’t dumber than obscure phrases.
  • Talking to people plainly isn’t dumb.

Writing something in plain English is not the same as dumbing it down. It doesn’t make you sound dumb, and it doesn’t make people think you’re treating them as if they’re dumb. In fact the opposite is true, which is awesome. It’s so awesome that I’m going to say it again, in plain language and in bold print:

Plain language makes you sound smarter, even to very clever people. There’s a lot of research that agrees about this. Here’s an example from the legal world.

Judges find plain English submissions more persuasive

A pair of researchers gave judges and research attorneys legal submissions. Half were written in “legalese” (the unplain native language of the judge and attorney) and half in plain English. Here’s what happened:

The respondents rated the passages in legalese to be substantively weaker and less persuasive than the plain English versions..Moreover, they inferred that the attorneys who wrote in legalese possessed less professional prestige than those who wrote in plain English.

[…] Judges and their research attorneys do in fact assess plain English briefs, and the lawyers who write them, more favorably.

PDF: Benson and Kessler, Legalese v plain English: An Empirical Study of Persuasion and Credibility in Appellate Brief Writing (Thanks, Digital Commons!)

Sound smart. Be smart. Write in plain language.

Plain language has a confidence that unclear, specialist language lacks. To explain something plainly you need to understand it really well. Your reader will notice, and appreciate it.

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This post is 385 words long, with an average reading grade of 8.1.