Oxford Guide to Plain English

Martin Cutts (5th edn, Oxford University Press, 2020), 400pp, £8.99
ISBN 978 0198 844 61 7

Reviewed by Claire Bacon

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A need for clarity

The current pandemic has taught us many things, one of which is the importance of clear communication. Everybody needs to understand information from world leaders and scientists about the coronavirus, not just those with a degree in epidemiology. We editors can play a part in situations like these, by helping our clients to use plain English – that is, English that the intended audience can easily understand.

Martin Cutts has updated his excellent guide to plain English. It describes 30 easy-to-follow ways to make writing clearer, and gives expert advice on punctuation, grammar and proofreading. Filled with ‘before and after’ examples (some of which will make you smile), the book is a pleasure to read and will be useful for anyone who regularly edits text written by the Fog People (fluent speakers of Obscuranto).

Before you start writing

The book explains how to plan a document before starting to write. Considering the document’s purpose, who the reader will be and what points will be included before starting to write will help your client to structure information so their reader can easily navigate the text and grasp the main message quickly. You can use these tips for developmental editing during early stages of the writing process, or to explain why a badly structured text is not yet ready for copyediting.

Writing readable sentences

Cutts clearly explains how to deal with unreadable sentences, such as favouring plain words over obscure words (origin is probably more helpful to the reader than provenance) and using short sentences. He also tackles common sources of clutter, including nominalisation, passive constructions, prepositional phrases, ineffective verbs and unnecessary words. These tips will help you turn sentences like:

To precisely identify the specific lesion localization, we performed examinations with magnetic tracers.

into sentences like:

We used magnetic tracers to find the lesion.

Useful information

There are also useful chapters on inclusive language (antagonising the reader will reduce the impact of the message), writing better instructions (important if the product in question can cause injury or death if not used properly) and writing low-literacy plain English (eg for people whose first language isn’t English, people with health problems or people with cognitive impairments).

There is too much confusion in the world, so the Oxford Guide to Plain English should be on every editor’s bookshelf.

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