As I read the guidelines for “keep it conversational” under the Plain Language Guidelines (plainlanguage.gov), I laughed out loud. For a brief moment, I scanned my screen for the “next” button, wondering where the rest of these instructions were for how to keep my plain language writing conversational. But nope. There was not a “next” button to click. This was the plain language for keeping plain language conversational: use verbs and make sure they are clear. And then I wondered, maybe this is where I am going wrong as a teacher. My language is usually conversational, but it is rarely plain and almost never so brief.
When I first started teaching high school English, I taught all of the following:
- Subject-verb agreement
- Helping verbs
- Linking verbs
- Irregular vs. regular verbs
- Active vs. passive voice
If you are wondering how successful these lessons were, I will go ahead and tell that they were hardly successful at all. In 9 years, I have shriveled that list down to just subject-verb agreement and active voice. But the Plain Language Guidelines only really cover active voice. Perhaps the guidelines assume that all of us know our verbs and how to use them already. But I guarantee you that not everyone does. But maybe that is okay. Maybe if I just tell my students that verbs are action words, “the give your sentences power and direction. They enliven your writing” (plainglanguage.gov). Just make sure your audience knows “who is doing what,” and you’re good to go.
Would that be enough?