“Plain Language” or “Standard English”?

I’ve recently been pondering a distinction I make, one that I alluded to in my recent Geneva seminars: I don’t refer to “plain language” (or “plain English”). Instead, I use the phrase “standard English.”

By advocating the term “standard English,” I don’t mean to get caught up in controversies regarding whether it suggests some sort of linguistic hegemony. Instead, all I have in mind is English as written by regular folk rather than the form of English traditionally written by lawyers. If you insist on a definition, this one will do: “Standard English is that set of grammatical and lexical forms which is typically used in speech and writing by educated native speakers.”

Why don’t I use the phrases “plain language” and “plain English”? For two reasons:

First, in my experience corporate lawyers are leery of those phrases—they assume that they imply some sort of dumbing-down. (This may be in part because the plain-language movement was initially identified with improving the language of consumer documents such as insurance policies.)

Advocates of plain language have a different view of those phrases. For example, Joseph Kimble has said “Plain language doesn’t mean baby talk or dumbing down the language. It means clear and effective communication—the opposite of legalese—and it has a long literary tradition.” I concur that this broader meaning is the more appropriate one, but I don’t wish to make my constituency—corporate lawyers—skittish.

Second, contract prose is stylized and limited, and in my seminars I half-jokingly suggest that it resembles computer code. I’m not sure that I’d describe it as “plain,” even when it incorporates the recommendations I make in MSCD.

I acknowledge, of course, that this distinction has zero functional significance, in that most of my efforts are aimed at stripping out of contract prose that which is archaic, bloated, redundant, or inconsistent. This is a goal that plain-language advocates would recognize.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.