Against the “Plain English Campaign”

In my very varied career of almost 40 years, I’ve spent a good half of it as a writer. My professional qualifications are technical, first in electronics and avionics engineering, and then I converted to IT (programming, application development, and business-systems analysis).

My professional writing experience has been mainly technical, and includes advertising copywriting, press relations, internal communications/PR, bids (in response to invitations to tender), and technical writing.

At various times of my career, including at present, I’ve been employed as a “Technical Author”, working for companies in electronics, IT, scientific instrumentation and aerospace. In the aerospace sector, in which I wrote aircraft-servicing manuals and pilots’ manuals, I was trained to write in a system of communication called “Simplified Technical English” (STE), designed by the Airbus Consortium.

STE has a small vocabulary, used in compliance with strict grammatical rules. It is now used through aerospace for operation-and-maintenance documentation, whether or not the text is destined for translation. (STE is not only easy for non-native English readers to understand, it can be translated quickly without risk of ambiguity, and is on the verge of becoming machine translatable.) The success of STE in allowing mankind to reach to the heavens has caused other industries to adopt the system and create their own STE dictionaries, these include pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, and process control.

English is the official international language of aerospace. All airline pilots and air traffic controllers must have a good level of spoken English (and at a higher level than STE, which was designed only for written English). STE helps to prevent aircraft from falling out of the sky. It helps to keep us safe. When I write technical manuals, even outside of the aerospace sector, I always try to adhere to the principles of STE that I learned from my years within the Airbus Consortium.

I think that STE is good, and so why, you might be wondering, do I oppose the  Plain English Campaign? My opposition certainly confuses some of my colleagues in technical writing, who have come to see STE and the Plain English Campaign as the same thing.

The Plain English Campaign

Not only do some of my technical-authoring colleagues like Plain English, they’re convinced and committed by the campaign, and have signed up to it. The have become Plain English Campaigners (or PECs).

The PECs started out in the 1970s, with a mission to improve communication between public institutions and the general public. Typically, they would campaign for improvements to the forms we are obliged to fill in, such as for applying for a passport or declaring tax. Some of the work they did was good and necessary. However, the PECs became so convinced of the value of their work that they increasingly sought to enlarge their self-proclaimed remit, and today they are a powerful, rich and influential lobby.

The PECs have become ideological, and seem to be on a mission to stamp out every English word, everywhere, that is not a “plain” word: i.e. every word that has not made it into their “Plain English Dictionary”.

As in all ideologies, the members of the sect rally around certain fundamental presuppositions, half-truths and assertions that can never be questioned by the adherents. One of these assertions is that Plain English is good, and the rest is “poor English”, or “flowery”, or “gobbledygook”, or “utter drivel”.

The PECs then perpetually justify, to themselves and to potential converts (and customers), why Plain English is good and the rest is poor. They search out the worst examples of English writing and speaking. They even analyse the speeches of caricatures of the human race, such as Donald Trump. (Trump is currently a favoured target for the PECs.)

Apart from going after the caricatures, the PECs employ many other fallacies, without realising they are committing these fallacies, because they don’t, and can’t, do philosophy.

You cannot do philosophy, and the analysis of fallacies, logic and rhetoric, with the little subset of the English language called Plain English.

The PECs claim to have altruistic motives – helping the aged to fill out passport-application forms for example – but when you dig deeper you sense that much of the campaigning is borne out of deep intellectual resentment for those of us who have bothered continuously to expand our vocabulary, and use it too.

By limiting your vocabulary to Plain English, you are limiting your intellectual choices, and the life of the mind (we all think in words), and the ability to understand and appreciate and enjoy anything that was written before 1979.

I think the PECs are suffering from a kind of intellectual sloth, and a deep envy, or chip-on-the-shoulder.

If we don’t use our language, we lose it, and cut ourselves off from our roots.

Carl Gustav Jung, famous for “word association”, came to realise that words, every one of which has a long history, have what he called a “numinous” quality, a spiritual and metaphysical quality, and that we tamper with the natural and organic evolution of language at our peril.

If you think about it, the English language is perhaps the main reason that the English psyche (“psyche” being the Greek for “soul”) and culture is different from, say, the French psyche and the German psyche. After all, geography cannot be the defining factor. England was connected to France until the retreat of the Ice Age 8000 years ago, and the Alsatian border has changed hands several times between French and German imperialists. Our waking thoughts, and even dreaming thoughts, are language (or at least most of my thoughts are language, and sometimes my dreams switch from my maternal language to the French language, my second language). We don’t decide the words with which we think, rather the words come together, of their own accord, quite unconsciously, and become coherent thoughts (and it is only at this point do we decide what to do with the words, and whether or not to edit them).

The French Connection

On the PEC Wikipedia page, we are told that:

  • “In 2011 PEC criticised the Met Office for using the phrase “probabilities of precipitation” instead of “rain is likely”. The Met Office responded by explaining that precipitation does not mean only rain. A Met Office spokesman said: “Precipitation covers a wide range of stuff falling from the sky including rain, sleet, snow, hail, drizzle, and even cats and dogs – but sums it up in just one word.”

Precipitation is a French word (as are almost all words ending “ion”). And knowing the French and Latin words in English helps those who want to learn one or more of the Romance languages.

Learning any language to a level of fluency is difficult, but at least when I started French, I already had a lot of vocabulary and hints, because I have a good English vocabulary that is rooted in French, or that actually is French. Of course, one has to be careful of the “false friends”, and of the many French words in the English language that have changed their meaning, subtly or radically, from the French source.

The more that the PECs publish and distribute, and the more that they have influence, the less the need for the average reader to have a fuller and richer English vocabulary, including much of the French half of the English vocabulary. If the PECs were to have their way, it would lead to more class distinction than ever, in which only the English aristocracy, elite and highly-educated would understand French words such as precipitation and commence and premier, whilst the next generation of plebs would be reduced to Anglo-Saxon words only. This in fact was precisely the situation in England for several centuries after the Norman invasion: the Monarchy, the Church and the Barons spoke French and the masses spoke Middle English. King Richard I (or Richard the Lionheart) is often depicted as the most English and legendary of kings, but in fact his native language was French. He couldn’t be bothered to learn to speak English!

The Plain English Campaign Website has the slogan, “Fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979”. And so we immediately see they cannot decide whether they are “campaigning” or “fighting”.

In my experience of the PECs, they are insensitive and brutal, and out for a fight. Naturally, they prefer the Germanic stream of English to the Latin and French streams. (The Anglo-Saxons arrived on these shores long before the Normans, and almost all of our most common words have Germanic roots.) I see the PECs as modern-day Vandals attacking what Saint Augustine of Hippo called the “City of God”.

  • Saint Augustine of Hippo – the most influential theologian since Saint Paul and until Thomas Aquinas – was writing in North Africa as the Roman Empire and its culture were being invaded and sacked by the Vandals, who besieged Hippo, and made it the capital of their North African kingdom shortly before Augustine died in AD 430.

The English language is by far the biggest language in the world. The Oxford English Dictionary has over 500,000 entries. The Plain English Dictionary has more like 500.

As we know, English is a confluence of many languages, including the classical languages of Hebrew, Latin and Greek, some knowledge of which is essential for doing philosophy in a Western language. (All Western languages are centred on the Greek concepts of Logos and Sophia, and Onoma – meaning laws, rules and systems – which is why many of our intellectual disciplines are suffixed with an “ology” and “onomy” and “osophy”. Philo-sophy simply means love of Sophia, or love of Wisdom.)


The Brutalist Logic

The PEC website homepage is currently celebrating the fact that the UK government has “booted out” Latin abbreviations such as i.e. and e.g. from its websites.  But where does it stop? What about all the Latin expressions in English, and French expressions, such as à la carte, aide-mémoire, au pair, enfant terrible, Grand Prix, mange tout, par excellence, coup d’état, sang-froid, fait accompli… and the many hundreds of other pretty and evocative French expressions.

The prettiness, the evocativeness and the musicality of language are all lost on the PECs. All these things must be “booted out”.  The flowers of “flowery England” must be stamped on, heavy boots.

It is perhaps significant that the Brutalist movement in architecture came out of England at about the same time as the Plain English Campaign. “Form follows function”, the architects started to shout, and put up the hideous slabs of concrete from which many English cities are yet to recover. There was nothing superfluous about the Brutalist architecture, nothing useless: no fussy detail. The problem is, after the novelty wore off, nobody wanted to live or work in these buildings, or even walk near them or overlook them, because they are so damned ugly and soulless and somehow dehumanising. And so the buildings that the Brutalists wanted to convince us were to be supremely useful (and quick and cheap to erect) quickly became useless, and most of them have been knocked down, whereas the fussy and decorative Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings that escaped the Brutalist architects and town planners are now protected by conservation orders.

One form brutish colleague, who is a PEC, insisted that “the purpose of language is solely to communicate”. I realised that it was pointless trying to explore the words “purpose” and “communicate” with him. I tried to explain to that, for me, words and languages (or “tongues”) are sacred, and have within them something numinous and metaphysical, at which point my colleague made the gesture of putting his fingers down his throat as if to vomit.

I tried to explain that, for me, words are everything, as they have been for every Western philosopher and theologian of note. I quoted the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who came to realise that we don’t just speak language, but “language speaks us” (Die Sprache spricht), and that the very foundations of Western philosophy (and Western civilisation), Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian, is the recognition of the objectivity of words/language.

“God said”, and “it was”. I like German philosophy, particularly GWF Hegel, although as you can imagine I’m not so enamoured with Nietzsche, and his concept of the “over man” (Übermensch) in place of God Almighty. Nietzsche tried (and largely succeeded) to cut off the 20th century from the Word, or Logos (and its ratios and harmonies).

With my technical background in electronics engineering, I know a thing or two about the waveforms of speech, and infinite harmonics, and amplitude spectrums. And I have engaged in dialogue with atheistic cosmologists who insist that we and the world are a product of blind mathematics (and few of these cosmologists want to acknowledge that modern mathematics, and algebra and algorithms and everything else beginning with “al” are gifts from our theistic siblings in Islam). Orthodox science, today, wants to tell me that mathematics governs space and time and all things. I insist that words (including numbers) govern space and time and all things.

God, the One, speaks… and it is. It is poetically significant perhaps, that God spoke the atomic number of 1 into Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe, and 6 into the Carbon, the element of organic life on Earth (or “Adama” in Hebrew).  Der Dichter Spricht.

Wer ist der Gral?

Das sagt mich nicht;
doch, bist du selbst zu ihm erkoren,
bleibt dir die Kunde unverloren.
Und sieh’!

Mich dünkt, dass ich dich recht erkannt:
kein Weg führt zu ihm durch das Land,
und niemand könnte ihn beschreiten,
den er nicht selber möcht’ geleiten.

Ich schreite kaum, –
doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit.

Du siehst, mein Sohn,
zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.

From Parsifal, Richard Wagner.

I believe that words are everything. And Civilisation is, by definition, the written word.

The Rabbis tell us that God “creates as He speaks”, or ebra kidebra (the probable root of “abracadabra”). They tell us that the very 22 letters of Hebrew are the foundation of the world, behind all language, and all mathematics, and all the “laws” of the Universe. Language speaks us.

For the PECs, in the Beginning was Plain English. For me, Plain English is a tedious eddy, in which the PECs are trapped in a fetish for the sound of their own voice.

Luke the Evangelist, in the book of Acts, tells us that 17 living languages descended on the Church at its inception in Jerusalem. These were real languages, being spoken spontaneously by these uneducated people from Galilee, the tough and hilly and working-class region up North, far from the City. These languages were not the barking gibberish called “tongues” than can by drummed up by some “Evangelical” sects today, with drums, electric guitars and flashing lights. No, “the tongues” were real languages (as in implied in the very word “language”, which comes from the French “la langue“, meaning “the tongue”) witnessed and understood by at least one member of the sophisticated cosmopolitan crowd in Jerusalem. Language is a gift. We cannot create or re-create real languages, no more than we can create or re-create Time, or Energy, because Energeia, from which the English word “energy” is derived is (in Greek) God.

I suspect that Luke, in describing the Pentecost, was being historical in Acts, whereas his Gospel is narrative (as he admits from the outset), taking liberties with geography and chronology, and addressed to Theophilus [lover of God], who is perhaps imaginary :

  • “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1, NIV).

Language is everything: all language, be it logic, myth, narrative, history, numbers or prophecy. We don’t just speak language. Language speaks us. We are the words of God, named in the name of God, and there is nothing, no thing, in Creation, that is not the words of God.

  Je suis l’Alpha et l’Oméga, le premier et le dernier, le commencement et la fin.


About markpickles

Writer and Artist:
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