From education to employment

Don’t let plain English fool you: Making communication clear

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

If you really want to be understood, write so as to confuse. Sounds like nonsense, but believe me, there’s something in it.

Thing is, if someone says to you:

  • We need to ensure all our students perform above average, or
  • Teleologically you need to suspend the ethical in your approach, or
  • If you get them to work for you, you’ll be lucky

you’ll have to go and find out from them what they mean.

The first instruction can’t mean what it says: it isn’t possible for everyone to be above average.

The second has words it’s highly likely no one understands,

and the third statement is ambiguous: could be they’re ideal, could mean they’re idle.

But there’s nothing in any of these statements a conversation wouldn’t clear up. There’s every chance a bit of patient question and answer would ensure that sender and receiver reached a shared understanding.

But if the communication had been clear in the first place, no conversation would have been needed, right?

The Plain English Campaign which has been fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979 defines plain English as a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.

Surely if we wrote like that the whole time we wouldn’t have to waste time checking what it was someone was trying to say to us?

Well let’s put it to the test:

“We would like you to judge how effectively learners are supported by their tutors.”

What could be more transparent and straightforward than that? We know precisely what we’re asked to look at and exactly what we’re asked to do. There’s nothing here that would cause us to pick up the phone, surely? We’d be confident to get straight on with the job.

We’d want to see the college policies on support for students and then talk with students and tutors about how what actually happens measures up to what should happen. What difference does tutoring make to academic success? What does it contribute to decision-making about higher education and career choices? Weigh up the evidence, ponder what it points to and write it up. Right?


This wasn’t what the college had in mind at all. Despite the beguiling transparency of the instruction a phone-call false-footed all these assumptions. To start with, the enquiry wasn’t going to be about the 16-18 year-olds at all but the adult students. And the college didn’t want anything like an audit of practice against policy. Turned out there were no policies covering this.

What they wanted was to gather adult learners’ views on how well they were supported with their confidence and the extent to which they felt they could turn to their tutors when they encountered difficulties. How well was the college doing in removing barriers in the way of this?

Now if the college had said Can you come in and look at tutoring? the instruction would have been so vague I’d have been compelled to ring up for better definition. As it was it felt like a stroke of luck I’d rung them. I could so easily have got straight to work, and along completely the wrong lines.

I think what the incident showed was that plain English can trick you. Indeed precisely because of its plainness it can lead to trouble. It looks so straightforward it’s all too easy not to stop and check that we all understand the same plain message from the same plain words.

We often don’t. I call it the Pirandello problem because it’s very well put by a character in his play Six Characters in Search of an Author:

“But don’t you see the whole trouble lies here, in words, words. Each one of us has a whole world of things inside us, every one of us our own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding when I give the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them while you inevitably translate my words into the sense and value of things you have within you. We think we understand each other – how can we possibly!

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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