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A Brief History of the English Language, Posh and Everyday

why you should write in Plain English

A brief history of the English language, posh and everyday

(c) Alan Hancock 2018


A quick look at history will shed light on the question of why so many people are drawn to ‘fancy’ English words when they write. Most of modern English developed from three different sources: Anglo-Saxon, Latin and French (which itself came from Latin). When French speaking invaders took over England about a thousand years ago, they imposed their mother tongue on the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. French and Latin became the languages of government, authority, law enforcement, trade and – later - science. The ordinary people still kept their Germanic mother tongue, using everyday words that we can easily recognise both in modern English and German. These simple words form the basis of today’s English: ‘is’, ‘man’, ‘house’, ‘drink’, ‘eat’, ‘can’, ‘make’, 'must', ‘little’, ‘water’. And we can add to this list all the four-letter words we know so well.


But because the French-Latin words were used to transact power, they carried with them a higher status. They were chosen by writers who wanted to borrow this implied authority. We can see why writers today often choose the longer French-Latin words, but I would question whether this choice always serves the writing, or has the desired effect. How do you view the claims of a real-estate agent that a house is a ‘substantial residence’? What do you think of when told that it is ‘situated within close proximity to transport facilities and educational establishments’? Do you think of a big house that is close to the freeway, train station and schools?


By choosing straight-forward Anglo-Saxon language we can often convey ideas and opinions to a reader more effectively. You may also avoid the misuse of a ‘fancy’ word like ‘utilise’. Take a look at the way a company like Google uses written language to promote its services. It comes across as confident, direct, and credible. No-one is trying hard to impress you. If what you write seems pompous, stilted or overly formal, look closely at the language you have chosen. Ask yourself how it will affect a reader’s response to what you are writing. When in doubt, write in Plain English.