Plain Language & Clear Communications Resources—Updated 2021
In 2015, I wrote about re-energizing my interest in and focus on plain language & clear communications. This is still true: I love this work.
For fellow writers and editors, here are some of the resources I find useful. I will add to this list and tweak it regularly. And if you have any suggestions, please contact me with them. Thanks!
- Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) http://plainlanguagenetwork.org
- the definition for plain language from the International Plain Language Federation, as quoted at <https://plainlanguagenetwork.org/plain-language/what-is-plain-language/> : A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
- Oxford Guide to Plain English, by Martin Cutts—now in the 2020, 5th edition
- about upcoming ISO standards for plain language: <https://www.iso.org/news/ref2566.html>
- Plain Language in Plain English, edited by Cheryl Stephens and other work by Cheryl Stephens
- Plain Language: Clear and Simple, a Canadian government publication now available via Iva Cheung’s blog < http://www.ivacheung.com/2014/03/plain-language-clear-and-simple/>
- How to Write Clearly, available as a pdf from the European Commission at < http://ec.europa.eu/translation/writing/clear_writing/how_to_write_clearly_en.pdf>
- Claire’s Clear Writing Tips—an expansion on the above, also available as a pdf from the European Commission at <https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/clear_writing_tips_en.pdf>
- United States government plainlanguage.gov “Checklists and handouts” listing at <https://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/checklists/>
Grammar Resources: What and Why
The word “grammar” excites some and bores or repels others. Why is the question considered later in this blog. Another question is What? What resources can help a writer or editor dust off or build up grammar skills? Here are some suggestions, including both recent and older resources:
- Oxford Canadian A-Z of Grammar, Spelling, & Punctuation—is a very handy, slim book that presents solutions to common problems. This is made for fast, easy reference and might best suit someone who needs some tips, reminders, and corrections, but already has a solid understanding.
- Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource by Maxine Ruvinsky—is a strong book for learning or reviewing the basics and testing yourself with exercises.
- Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, Style, Usage and Grammar by Anne Stilman—is good for both editors and writers; it includes some exercises.
- A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker—the “Grammatical Sentences” and “Effective Sentences” chapters are clear, focused, and concise.
- The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed and The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon—are quirky handbooks with fanciful examples, which help reduce the potential for boredom. If grammar is a subject that gives you the hives, but you want (or need) to bone up on it, these might be just the thing.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, chapter 5—within “Chicago” (the bible for many North American book editors) this chapter is a possibly overlooked gem.
- Words into Type, 3rd edition, part V—within this old favourite, this 60-page part is a gold mine for editors.
- The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage, part two—focused on common problems, this is a handy resource for writers and editors; it wisely recognizes how language changes and notes some recurring questions.
- Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, by Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine—another resource from Oxford University Press that is well-suited to editors; it is organized alphabetically and combines subject entries and word entries (e.g., on the same spread—”sentence, sentence fragment, run-on sentence, comma splice” and “separatist, sovereignist, …”)
- Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd edition, by Bryan A. Garner—another resource from Oxford University Press and well-suited to editors; it has alphabetical entries and comments on current and historical usage.
- some online sources, such as those in Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) series—however, there are many online sources that seem informed by a very basic understanding of grammar and “the rules I was taught in grade 6”; use online sources with extreme care; language changes and there are various widely promoted “rules” that contradict usage past and present.
- The Elements of Style—often known as “Strunk and White” (the authors’ names), this continues to be a favourite for many. It has to be said that Strunk and White was written first for college students in Mr. Strunk’s domain. While its “rules” don’t apply to every type of writing, they are well expressed. It covers a range of subjects: grammar, punctuation, and recommendations for structuring an undergraduate essay, for example.
- The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer—written as a companion to The Elements of Style.
- a grammar instruction book for beginners and including exercises, such as Grammar Step by Step 1 by Helen Kalkstein Fragiadakis and Ellen Rosenfield, from McGraw-Hill—for the grammar-resistant (see below) and others people who want to start with the basics, a step-by-guide to English for English as a second language (ESL) students and teachers might be the right solution.
Many writers (and editors) who read widely develop an ear for good, clear writing, which allows them to make instinctive, effective choices in grammar most of the time. The result is that they can joyfully use (and strategically abuse) the rules of grammar as they need and want for clarity and impact. If you are one of these writers or editors, you might only want to use some of the books above to troubleshoot or to dust off your skills.
If you feel that you need to do some more work on grammar, need to defend your decisions, or have been told regularly that your writing is unclear or unpolished, then you need to dig deeper. Perhaps you need to brush up on your skills in English grammar to “naturalize” your English writing and to avoid importing constructions from other languages.
Another possibility is that you are rushing or imagine that a quickie grammar check with Microsoft Word will do the trick. (It won’t.) Here again you might want to brush up on your grammar skills. And it never hurts to read as much strong, clear writing as you can to develop that ear.
Maybe you know that your writing will go next to a copy-editor. Great; however, the more you attend to in your own writing, the easier it is for a copy-editor to edit your work well.
- When a writer streamlines the work ahead in the publication process, this saves time and money. (See my blogs for more about types of editing and more about what editing costs and why.)
- When a writer does not pay enough attention to clear expression (including grammar), then the writer risks a painful and costly (or stalled) publication process.
Maybe you resist grammar or dismiss it. If that’s the case, consider your goals and your readers. Can your readers understand your writing? Are you achieving your goals? Is your writing seeming to go unnoticed? Are you regularly asked for rewrites or clarifications? If your readers consider your writing to be unclear, unpolished, unprofessional, or embarrassing, then you have a big problem. Likely grammar is one source of that problem. If this is the case, think of grammar as just one support for the reader and one tool for you, the writer.
If you need to brush up on your grammar, read as much as you can, read as widely as you can, and then have a look at some of the resources listed above.