Drop The Ego: Our Attitudes Towards Plain English

Written by Lauren Carter | Last updated:

I was listening to a discussion a few weeks ago where people were talking about plain English in educational settings in Australia. One of the speakers was talking about how although it seems everyone knows about plain English and its benefits, it seems quite difficult to actually implement plain English in real educational settings. So, why is that? Let’s dive in!

What are the common attitudes towards plain English?

No matter what we’re talking about, there will always be three types of attitudes you can choose: you’re either all for it, all against it, or somewhere in the middle. This is no different when it comes to plain English.

In case you haven’t figured out yet, I’m in the “all for plain English” camp. I think everything that is used to inform someone should be written or spoken in plain English. I believe that having your audience understand what you’re communicating is way more important than how intelligent I appear to be based on the words I use. This may surprise you, but the words someone uses (or doesn’t use) doesn’t dictate their intelligence level! ? Sure, they probably indicate someone’s education level, but that doesn’t mean someone is inherently smarter or dumber because of the words they use or the educational opportunities they just happened to have available to them.

Why don’t people want to use plain English?

From my perspective some people don’t want to use plain English for three main reasons:

  1. The “too hard basket” reason
  2. The “I don’t need plain English” reason
  3. The “I’m better than you and I want you to know it” reason

Often, communicating in plain English simply gets put in the “too hard basket”. People think that it will just be too much work to translate something into or create something using plain English. This often occurs because people lack the skills and education around how to actually communicate in plain English. Or perhaps they just don’t know where to start — the task seems huge and too daunting, so they don’t even start it because they don’t know how to.

Other times people simply don’t understand how difficult their language is to actually understand. This stems from a lack of awareness around their own language use and also a lack of education around how to improve their communication to make it clearer and easier to understand. While not exclusively the case, I find that people with this mindset are often monolingual English speakers who have no experience with other languages. (Monolingual just means someone who speaks one language). They have never been in a situation where they or someone they loved needed help communicating in English, so it doesn’t occur to them that their language is actually difficult to understand.

And lastly, there are some people who enjoy showing their superiority to others through the way they use language. They know their language is difficult to use, yet they don’t want to change it because it creates an “us and them” separation. It creates a group of “superiors” who use language in a “better” or “more sophisticated” way so the “others” can’t understand them. This may make the others feel isolated or stupid because they don’t understand. Another issue here is that these “superiors” see plain English as “dumbing down” their language to appeal to the “lesser” in society, which is totally not true.

How can we improve our attitudes towards plain English?

Depending on where your plain English attitudes are at, there are a few different things you can do.

If you’re in the “too hard basket” camp, you can:

  • Educate yourself about plain English
  • Practice changing your language into plain English as much as possible
  • Break the task of writing something into plain English into smaller steps so it doesn’t feel as daunting

If you’re in the “I don’t need plain English” camp, you can:

  • Start noticing your language and being curious about the way you use it
  • Recognise how the way you say things affects the outcome of your communication
  • Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has low English literacy and ask yourself if they would understand you

If you’re in the “I’m better than you and I want you to know it” camp, you can:

  • Drop the ego — literally no one cares if you can use “whom” correctly ?
  • Recognise that language is merely a tool for communication rather than a tool to measure someone’s intelligence
  • Be compassionate and put yourselves in the shoes of “the others” to see if they would understand you

Now, let’s be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with being superior about your language and wanting to flaunt your amazing vocabulary and grammar. But ask yourself this: who is it serving? What purpose does it actually achieve? Does it help you communicate better with others or create barriers to connecting with them?

Genuinely be curious about why you want to hold onto this superiority if that’s a problem for you. Change comes from being curious and non-judgemental towards ourselves, so there’s no need to beat yourself up about it.

I’ve said this in a previous post, but I used to enjoy correcting people’s spelling and grammar. It made me feel better about myself because it made me feel smarter than them. But over time I realised that I don’t need to do that to feel smart. What if I just chose within myself to be smart regardless of external factors? If I am fully secure in my intelligence level regardless of external factors, then I don’t need to point out people’s language mistakes or use convoluted words to communicate to boast my intelligence to others.

This week’s challenge

This week I’d love for you to identify where you’re at in terms of your attitude towards plain English. Are you all for it, all against it, or somewhere in the middle? Which camp do you fit into?

Once you’ve identified where you’re at now, ask yourself where you’d like to be — in a week? In a month? In a year? Then work out how big of a gap there is between where you are now and where you want to be in the future.

If you’d like to change where you’re at with your plain English journey, start by making consistent effort every day or every week with how you communicate. Be curious about your language use and the way others use language too. Ask yourself how you could communicate more clearly. Or think about what thoughts or beliefs are stopping you from changing the way you communicate.

Our attitudes can only change from consistently noticing them, being curious about them, and experimenting with what works to change them. You’ve got this!