What is plain English?
Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily.
8 sentence-level techniques
Prefer active voice
When you write using the active instead of passive voice, your writing is shorter, clearer and, most of all, more engaging. You also avoid ambiguity about who did what or who is responsible for what.
Remember to put a person before the verb.
Instead of ‘Field trials were conducted’, write ‘We conducted field trials’.
Put the action in the verb
When you use an abstract noun, you bury the action in a noun instead of where it belongs – in a verb, accompanied by a person, i.e., someone doing something.
Here are a few examples:
Abstract nouns are hard to picture. They make your writing stodgy, lifeless, vague, boring, and hard for your reader to understand.
English has lots of strong verbs – let’s use them!
Instead of ‘Provide a description of’, write ‘Describe’.
Instead of ‘This contributes to the conservation of water’, write ‘This saves water’.
Instead of ‘Dams and weirs prevent fish movement’, write ‘Dams and weirs stop fish from swimming upstream’.
Choose short, simple words
Always choose the simpler word.
Instead of ‘approximately’, write ‘about’.
Instead of ‘assistance’, write ‘help’.
Instead of ‘provide’, write ‘give’.
Instead of ‘purchase’, write ‘buy’.
Instead of ‘demonstrate’, write ‘show’.
Avoid jargon and unexplained technical terms
Jargon can be useful when you are writing for readers who are familiar with your subject.
When the reader is not familiar with the jargon, they feel excluded and lose interest. They may even feel offended, or embarrassed that they don’t ‘get it’. Your communication will have failed.
If you find you have to use a specialised term, explain it in plain English:
- in the narrative, immediately before or after using the term
- between brackets immediately after the term, if the explanation is short
- in a glossary or small section entitled, for example, ‘Key terms explained’.
You might also need to give an example to make sure your meaning is clear.
Keep sentences short and/or well constructed
If you have to re-read a sentence to understand it, that’s a good indication that it is not well constructed, it contains more than one idea, or it is simply too long to absorb in one reading.
Long sentences are fine as long as they are well constructed and are interspersed with short sentences.
To achieve a good rhythm, aim for a mix of long and short sentences.
Keep each sentence to one idea.
Aim for a friendly tone
Don’t be afraid to use ‘we’ and ‘our’ (instead of your organisation’s name) and ‘you’ throughout. This will help you achieve a personal tone without being too chummy.
Don’t feel you have to completely ‘dumb it down’
Give the reader some credit for being able to understand difficult concepts, as long as you have explained them well.
Show, don’t tell
Avoid using adjectives that appear self-promoting (e.g. vital, innovative, world-class, talented, remarkable). These words can turn people off.
It is better to let people judge the credibility of your organisation and the importance of your work by the facts.