choosing the right words

Plain English and Australian usage

You may have been told you must write in plain English, or maybe you will just agree that it’s the best way to communicate with your chosen audience. Either way, you may need some help choosing appropriate words and phrases. This is especially important if you are writing instructions for other people to follow.

What is plain English?

Plain English is clear and accurate writing, in a natural style, and avoids the use of bureaucratic, longwinded and confusing language.

Learning to write in plain English

A great resource for learning how to write and communicate in plain English is the Oxford Guide to Plain English, which describes this ‘woolly term’ as:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.'

The Complete Plain Words, published by Penguin in 1987, also gives good explanations of how and why you should write clearly.

The Plain English Campaign was launched in Britain in 1979, and offers free online guides and other tools, including a gobbledegook generator.

Choosing the right words

The Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus are my first choice when I’m searching for the right word. I like to have a hardcopy edition but it’s well worth having a subscription to the online versions. However, a dictionary doesn’t always help us choose the best words to convey our meaning. There are many books that explain correct usage of words and phrases.

The two modern and specifically Australian references I find most useful are:

Right Words: A guide to English usage in Australia, by Stephen Murray-Smith, 2nd ed., Penguin, Ringwood, Vic 1990, is still an excellent reference. It explains the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, the difference in usage between words that are frequently confused, and common mistakes.

The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage, by Pam Peters, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Vic, 2007, is a comprehensive guide that gives the facts about variants of language used in written Australian communication, and leaves it up to the reader to choose the most suitable. It compares Australian English with British, American and other varieties of English. It covers spelling, grammar, punctuation, the style and structure of language, and editorial style and formatting.

If you are writing for an American audience, Garner’s Modern American Usage by Brian A. Garner, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, New York, is a useful guide.