Don't confuse Trump's plain talk with plain language

Don't confuse Trump's plain talk with plain language


Much has been made of Donald Trump’s use of plain talk. On Trump’s inauguration day, Rex Murphy wrote: “Donald Trump is not an orator. Rather he’s a man with a plain message, which he delivers plainly.”

In their book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, Joel Pollak and Larry Schweikart say that it is “Trump’s plain speech” that “connects to the heart of the matter.”

But does it? Tim Facto queried in a letter to The Des Moines Register, “If Trump is a plain talker, why do he and his campaign staff need to spend such a “huge” amount of time explaining what he really meant?”

And therein lies the rub. Yes, as Sue Horner pointed out in her newsletter Wordnerdery, Trump does many of the things that proponents of plain language, like me, advocate:

  • He speaks in a conversational style.
  • He uses short, everyday words.
  • He uses short sentences (when he’s not rambling).

Then Horner asks: “Is Trump the new poster boy for plain language?” To that I answer a resounding “No.” And that “no” is based entirely on the point that Tim Facto made. If you have to ask: “What does that mean?” the language is not plain.

Plain language is clear language

I think many people credit Trump with speaking plainly because they make the mistake of confusing plain language with dumbed-down language. They think that because Trump uses simple, everyday words and short sentences—because he speaks at a grade 4 reading level—his speech is “plain.” Well, that’s just wrong.

First and foremost, plain language is about clearly communicating meaning. I like to use the following definition of plain language, which is similar to one used by Plain Language Association International (PLAIN).

Material is plain (or clear) if your audience can do three things:

  • Find the information they need.
  • Understand the information they find.
  • Act appropriately on the information they find.

Only your audience can determine whether your material is plain.

Notice this definition says nothing about the length of the words or sentences. That’s because word length, sentence length, readability, etc. are all tools you use to get to the goal of writing plainly. It is to these tools that Horner was referring when she asked whether Trump is the new poster boy for plain language. But without a focus on meaning, these tools can lead to unclear, unplain language.

If you are left with questions it is not plain

Let’s look at three of Trump’s most plain sounding campaign promises:

1. “We will build a great wall along the southern border and Mexico will pay for the wall.”

2.  “Obamacare’s going to be repealed and replaced.”

3.  “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

In all three of these examples, the tone is conversational. The words are short, and where they are not short, they are familiar. Americans in particular are used to hearing their Congressmen and Senators referred to as “representatives.” They are used to hearing “Obamacare” when the law being referred to is the Affordable Care Act. The sentences are also relatively short. Where sentences are long, Trump punctuates them with silences so that a long one, such as in the third example above, comes out in five bursts.

Now let’s examine each for meaning.

1. How will this wall be built? How will Mexico pay for it? Can one country simply order another country to pay for something?

2. What will Obamacare be replaced with?

3. How would Muslims be identified? What kind of timeframe is “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on?” And where is the clarity in “what the hell is going on?”

It’s is not up to me to say whether Trump’s policies are right or wrong, but I will ask just one more question. If January’s executive order on immigration was clear and in plain language, would there have been confusion? Here in Canada, it was unclear whether dual citizens of the countries named in the order were part of the travel ban. It is my contention that if the order were in plain language, there would have been no such confusion. So …

No, Trump is not our poster boy

In fact, he gives plain language a bad name. Plain language is more than a conversational style, short words, and short sentences. It is about providing people with clear information—information they can use. So the next time you hear President Trump say something that you think sounds plain, ask yourself, “What does that mean?” If the answer isn’t clear, the language isn’t plain.

About the Author

Catherine has been a freelance plain language consultant since 2000. Clients include the the Government of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Safety Services Nova, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, Dalhousie University, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and Spring Loaded Technology. Catherine provides writing, editing, testing and training services. She possesses a Master of Education in Literacy degree from Mount Saint Vincent University where she specialized in plain language.