Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Plain English makes communication so much easier

4 March, 2015 - 16:03 -- John Burton

The other day I received an email that was shockingly badly written.

The text of the email broke all the rules of plain English with sentences such as: Further to our communication of 3 February 2015, constituting the first formal notice of an electronic vote on a revised motions process, which will open on 13 April 2015 and close on 27 April 2015, we are now contacting you to ascertain which individual from your organization/institution should be assigned the role of “Authorized vote holder”.

To make matters worse, the email required a response. It came from an international conservation organisation that World Land Trust (WLT) is a member of. The email was important: it was about the voting rights of members. But it was only after reading it several times that I was able to understand it. I dread to think what someone not speaking English as their first language would make of it!

It is inexcusable for a membership organisation in any sector to be sending out this kind of gobbledegook. I have neither the time nor the patience to spend more than a few seconds deciphering an email after first reading it. If an email is not immediately intelligible it will more than likely irritate and frustrate me; it will certainly lower my estimation of the organisation that has sent it.

WLT has always put a high value on good communication. As a fundraising organisation WLT relies on clear and simple messages. We have invested in our communications staff and our web team, and we have kept up with the opportunities provided by the internet and social media.

I am proud of the way that WLT puts its message across to supporters and the wider public. But, considering the volume of communications we put out, it’s inevitable that here at WLT we also sometimes fall short of the standards of plain English.

Spelling mistakes slip in to our webpages. Hastily written postings on social media networks may contain errors. Reports lack clarity and brevity. We are all guilty of occasional slips.

Writing briefly and intelligibly is an art, but it can be learnt. As Mark Twain once wrote to a friend: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Good writing takes time and effort, but there are tricks of the trade. It certainly gets easier with practice. 


Submitted by Robert Burton on

I fear this is a losing battle, although I read recently that the police are training coppers to write emails properly.

Submitted by John on

We have not given up at WLT! Our editorial staff provide training in plain English for other staff, and we have a house style. The latter, like the English language itself, is fairly flexible. And a significant number of our long-term supporters make it very clear to us that they appreciate being communicated with, on paper and with clarity.

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