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A Guide to Using Plain English

Updated on May 4, 2017
SMD2012 profile image

I'm a business communications coach who teaches writing, speaking, and leadership skills to adults in the midst of a career change.

Learn how to simplify your print and online content using plain English so that your communications are clear and easy to understand for a wide audience.

Plain English reduces confusion and makes your text more enjoyable to read.

Is your writing difficult to understand? Are your readers frustrated because they can't find the answers they are looking for? Writing in plain language may be the solution to your communication challenges.
Is your writing difficult to understand? Are your readers frustrated because they can't find the answers they are looking for? Writing in plain language may be the solution to your communication challenges. | Source

Use plain language to make your articles clearer, sharper, and shorter. Plain language writing is a style of writing that makes your intentions clear, easy to understand, and accessible to diverse readers. It is an approach to writing that focuses on the needs of your readeers.

When it comes to your posts, online articles, and websites, keeping your readers' needs in mind starts by understanding what questions they would use to find what they're looking for. Many search queries start with:

  • Why is...
  • Where is...
  • What is...
  • When is...
  • Who is...
  • How is...***

If you can imagine what kind of questions your readers might be asking themselves to find your information, you'll increase the chances of your website being found.

***Hint: Creating a Frequently Asked Questions section on your site using the above phrases can increase your long-tail keywords search ranking.

Did you know October 13 is International Plain Language Day? On October 13, 2010, the U.S. government passed the Plain Writing Act, a groundbreaking decision requiring all government staff to begin using plain language in all their communications with the public.

A sample guide to plain words

Instead of:
Use:
adjacent to
next to
ascertain
find out, learn
at the present time
now
equitable
fair
excessive number of
too many
exhibit
show
failed to
did not
for the reason that
because
hereafter
after this
in an effort to
to
inasmuch as
because
incumbent upon
must
in the event that
if
locate
find
on a regular basis
regularly
remuneration
pay, payment
the undersigned
I, me
transpire
occur
with reference to
about
witnessed
saw
Writing in plain English shows that you care about making sure your writing reaches your audience.

Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.

— John Ruskin

Respect your readers' needs. Some people think that plain language writing will make their articles sound boring, dull, and condescending. Certainly, plain language has the potential to undo a fine piece of literary fiction. But if someone is looking for medical information on a recent diagnosis, or needs to find a new job after a layoff, they are not looking to be entertained with fluffy language. They are looking for answers.

Why does plain language matter?

Plain language writing makes your messages easier to understand.
Plain language writing makes your messages easier to understand.

Don't make up words to sound clever. If a word can't be found in a dictionary, how can other people understand its meaning?

Have you ever heard of—

  • localised capacity deficiency (traffic jam)
  • intuitively counterproductive (stupid)
  • manually operated humus extractor (a shovel)
  • fiscal underachievers (poor people)
  • negative patient care outcome (death)

Made-up words such as these are the sign of an unskilled writer trying to impress the reader. He could also be trying to avoid a difficult subject. For example, can you imagine a doctor telling you that there was a negative patient care outcome when referring to your relative who has just died? Would hearing that phrase instead of the word 'died’ make you feel any better?

Always cut out words that don't serve your message.
Always cut out words that don't serve your message. | Source

My aim is to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler than that.

— Albert Einstein

Here's a final thought on using plain language to reach your audience. Did you know that according to a Health Canada study, about 22 percent of adult Canadians can not read a medicine label to determine the correct amount of medicine to give to a child?

Plain language isn't about dumbing down what we're writing and trying to reach a lowest common reading level. It's about being respectful of your readers' needs. It's about a commitment to being fair and empathetic to our readers.

Challenge yourself to try writing in plain language. It will be harder to do than you might think at first -- old Grade 12 Creative Writing habits die hard -- but with practice you'll soon be able to trim excess words to make your writing leaner, cleaner, and clearer.

Writing in plain language won't make your messages childish and boring. Writing in plain language can make your documents cleaner and more enjoyable to read.
Writing in plain language won't make your messages childish and boring. Writing in plain language can make your documents cleaner and more enjoyable to read.

© 2012 Sally Hayes

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  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    Thanks Anjili!

  • Anjili profile image

    Anjili 5 years ago from planet earth, a humanoid

    The mistakes writers make in order to impress readers can be surprising. I liked the way you put it across. voted up and useful. Thanks for sharing. Will definitely make our output better:)

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    I agree! Writing as if you are defending a thesis really doesn't translate well on the internet! Thanks for stopping by!

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    Yes, I remember those days of stuffing my papers with big words and passive clauses to increase my word count!

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    It really does take practice to learn how to write in plain language if all through school we've been taught that we must use big words to get good marks. Thanks for voting my hub up!

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    Glad the tips were helpful!

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    Yes! That's the thing about writing online. We have such a wider, international audience when we are writing on the web.

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    It's pretty ridiculous isn't it? Oh, the things we do to make our lives more complicated!

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    Your so right. Plain language in health care is so vital. The study that I quoted went on to talk about how many patients were not getting the health benefits of prescriptions (ie; taking the right pill at the right time of day)and home-care therapies because the instructions were too complicated. Thanks for your comment and for validating the need for plain language in health care.

  • SMD2012 profile image
    Author

    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    Sometimes I get carried away when I am writing and forget that I have an audience. It really is all about what they need, not my need to sound like an intellectual. Thanks for stopping by!

  • SMD2012 profile image
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    Sally Hayes 5 years ago

    Welcome to HubPages! I'm learning as I go too!

  • LindaSmith1 profile image

    LindaSmith1 5 years ago from USA

    Great tips. Most of us are writing to an ordinary audience, not those with a Ph.D.

  • Millionaire Tips profile image

    Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

    I agree with you! Using big words is intuitively counterproductive! I have trouble writing in plain language after years of trying to impress my college professors, but I do try. (I just wrote make an effort). LOL

  • sen.sush23 profile image

    Sushmita 5 years ago from Kolkata, India

    Thank God, I stopped to read the Hub! Yeah, sometimes I do get carried away by my years of carrying the dictionary around when reading. But yes, I too am considering writing on 'localised capacity deficiency'. Voted up.

  • StephanieBCrosby profile image

    Stephanie Bradberry 5 years ago from New Jersey

    Understanding one's audience is crucial for making sure you hit your target audience. Thanks for the tips and reminders.

  • starstream profile image

    Dreamer at heart 5 years ago from Northern California

    This is important. Words communicate everything when you are reading online. Some readers may not be using English as their first language and find it difficult to comprehend.

  • BizGenGirl profile image

    Bema Self 5 years ago from Seattle

    Great hub! I've never heard of a shovel being referred to as a "manually operated humus extractor", lol. I think I'll actually use that more often! lol

  • thesingernurse profile image

    thesingernurse 5 years ago from Rizal, Philippines

    I so agree with your insights here. As a nurse, I always make sure that I communicate in a way that corresponds to the level of understanding of my patients. And I guess I brought that "dogma" in my writing as well... or so I think. Hehehehe!

    Voted up and sharing!

  • thumbi7 profile image

    JR Krishna 5 years ago from India

    This is a great advice for the writers. Often we don't keep the reader in mind while writing.

    Thanks for SHARING:)

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    roknrobn64 5 years ago

    Thanks for the useful advice, and I really try to keep things as simple as possible in my writing. I also like your black & white pic w/ the eraser and pencil. This is all new to me, and I'm kind of learning as I go.

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