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Writing plain English

June 15th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

For my sins I often am asked to review papers for conferences, books and journals. I think this is fair as a contribution to an emerging community of practice but i can’t say I enjoy the process. I find it very hard to decide what should be the standard and am worried that I am being fair to authors who have obviously invested a lot of time and effort into their research and writing. I struggle even more if the author is writing in a second or third language. How important is the standard of the English? And how much should style count towards the review?

One thing that does annoy me is the throwing around of unreferenced assertions. All these example are taken from papers I have reviewed recently:

“Many researchers say…… ”

“It is unquestionable that…..”

“Most students are…….”

“We have rapidly come to a point where….”

“There is a perception that….”

I like papers with attitude. And papers jammed full of references at the end of every sentence are extremely hard to read. Even so, I think that assertions of this kind need some evidence to back them up. Furthermore what does ‘most’ or ‘many’ mean.

In that respect I like the approach of the Welsh agency, Estyn. The purpose of Estyn is to inspect quality and standards in education and training in Wales. Estyn’s reports follow its guidance for the writing and editing of reports, which is available on the Estyn website (www.estyn.gov.uk). Estyn also publish a table, reproduced below, in the introduction to their reports, showing the terms that Estyn uses and a broad idea of their meaning. Whilst such an approach may seem pedantic, it greatly helps in understanding what they are saying .

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  1. Writing plain English. Nice guideline for quantifying vague statements in publications http://tinyurl.com/33e3nu8

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