Use plain English

Have you come across the term plain English? It’s a style of writing that uses language, structure and presentation that readers can understand and act on by reading just once. Plain English is language that:

  • uses commonly understood words and phrases
  • is clear and concise
  • avoids unnecessary technical jargon
  • is appropriate to the audience’s age, developmental level, English-language ability and familiarity with the topic
  • is free of clichés.

Contrary to what you may have heard, plain English is not amateurish writing. It doesn’t patronise readers, oversimplify topics or change the meaning of what you want to say.

Origins of plain English

Plain English dates to the 1940s when British senior civil servant Sir Ernest Gowers was asked to write a guide for officials on avoiding pompous and over-elaborate writing. He published a guide, The complete plain words, which is still in print today.

In 1979 the Plain English Campaign was launched in the UK to tackle ‘gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information’. The Plain English Campaign created the Crystal Mark that is now used by over 1600 organisations to show they use plain English.

In New Zealand, the WriteMark Plain English Awards Trust was formed in 2008. The Trust organises and hosts the annual Plain English Awards.

Reasons for using plain English

Plain English benefits writers, readers and organisations in several ways:

  • It is faster to write.
  • It is faster to read.
  • It gets the message across.
  • It allows people to participate in activities, because they can understand the information they are given to read.
  • It saves organisations time and money.

Ways to write plainly

Using plain English is easy. Here are eight ways to make your writing plain:

  1. Use short sentences (no more than 20 words).
  2. Stick to one point per sentence.
  3. Use active voice rather than passive voice.
  4. Speak to your audience (use ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’).
  5. Use words that your reader will understand (don’t hide behind jargon terms).
  6. Give clear and simple instructions, such as ‘contact us at …’ rather than ‘you are welcome to get in touch with …’.
  7. Avoid using nominalisations (nouns made from verbs or adjectives, such as collaboration), which make writing dull and hard to read.
  8. Use lists to help split up information.

Here’s a checklist of plain English elements. Keep this handy so you can check your documents are written plainly.

Big-picture elements
The purpose of the document is clear at the start.
The topic and main message of the document are obvious.
The content supports the purpose of the document.
The actions required of the reader are clear and obvious.
The tone supports the purpose of the document.
Structure elements
The structure of the document is clear and logical.
The headings signal the key content.
Lists and tables are used to simplify complex material and break up paragraphs.
Lists are limited to two or three levels.
Each paragraph starts by explaining its topic.
Language elements
The paragraphs are mostly short and focus on one topic.
The sentences are mostly short and straightforward.
The words are precise and familiar.
There are no excess words.
The document uses base verbs, not zombie nouns (nominalisations).
The document avoids ambiguous terms like ‘shall’ in favour of clear terms like ‘must’.
The writing speaks to the reader by using ‘we’ and ‘you’.
The writing uses the active voice.
The writing avoids using jargon, clichés and wordy phrases.
The writing uses consistent terms throughout.
Presentation elements
The pages look orderly.
The layout and presentation help the reader absorb the message quickly and easily.
The document is error-free and consistent with the style guide.
There is plenty of white space.
The print is big enough to read.