Skip to content

How to write in plain English and get better results from your messages

Do you panic every time your printer malfunctions and you have to consult the ten-page manual? How about when the terms and conditions pop up after you update your smartphone’s operating system?

If the very thought of reading technical terms and fine print makes you shudder, you’re not alone. The fact is that most people struggle with these headache-inducing texts because they simply aren’t written for most people. In other words, they aren’t written in plain English.

The dangers of jargon

Jargon refers to the specialised words and expressions used in a particular activity or profession. From sports commentators and gamers to lawyers and doctors, different groups have their own ways of conveying information.

This specialised language might be useful within certain circles but impossible for a layperson to comprehend. This confusion can have serious consequences. Faced with overcomplicated and unclear instructions, people are more likely to skip crucial information and make mistakes. Consider the harm done to consumers duped into signing unfair contracts, or patients who can’t make informed medical decisions – all because of bad communication.

So if your goal is to communicate effectively with everyone, including those outside your area of expertise, then you need to ditch the jargon.

The push for plain English

Through the years, there have been significant efforts to promote plain English in varied contexts. At the core of this movement is the belief that communication should accessible to all. This does not mean speaking to others as if they are childish or stupid. It means communicating in a clear and concise way, which all busy people can surely appreciate.

One of the most influential guides to plain English was penned by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1948. Produced for civil servants in the United Kingdom, the original guide and its sequel were compiled in The Complete Plain Words (1954), which remains popular and is now online.

The UK’s Plain English Campaign has also advocated for clear writing since 1979, while Inclusion Europe provides “easy-to-read standards” for multiple languages used in the European Union.

In the United States, there is even a Plain Writing Act! Signed into law in 2010, it requires federal agencies to use clear language that the public can understand.

Everyone has the right to clear and precise information. If you’re not sure whether your document is as straightforward as it could be, here are 5 questions to consider.

1. Can this word/phrase be simpler?

Many of us learn that big words make us sound smart. But is it smart to spend time coming up with difficult words for your report if it means no one will read it?

Instead of long, outdated or obscure terms, pick commonly used alternatives.

Hitherto -> Until now

Aforementioned -> Stated above

Pursuant to -> Under

In the event of -> If

Acquiesce -> Agree

2. Is there any unnecessary jargon?

If your intended audience doesn’t share your expertise, avoid technical terms. Words that are frequently used in your office might sound like nonsense to others!

Deliverables -> Results

Execute -> Do

Dehiring -> Layoffs

Involuntarily undomiciled -> unhoused, homeless

3. Are technical terms/concepts explained?

Sometimes technical terms are used for accuracy. In these cases, it’s helpful to include brief explanations. Always think about what your message means to the reader. For instance, if you’re informing them about a new policy, how will they be affected?

You may be eligible for a fee waiver. You do not need to pay this fee if you meet the following conditions.

4. Is it easy to grasp the main idea of each sentence?

The more ideas you pack into a sentence, the harder it is for a reader to follow. Stick to one idea per sentence and try to keep it under 25 words. If it must be longer, convey the most important point at the start.

5. Does this sound like how I speak?

At the dinner table, you wouldn’t say, “One respectfully requests that one’s fellow diner relay the sodium chloride receptacle” when you mean “Please pass the salt”!

As in casual conversation, your writing should address the audience directly. Say ‘you’ and ‘me’.

Choose the active voice rather than passive voice: “I did this” instead of “This was done to me”.

If you’re making a request, be clear about what you want your audience to do.  

Plain English is all about simplicity, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy! Effective communication takes training and practice, and it can be especially hard to “switch gears” if you work in a field with lots of specialised terms. Next time you sit down to write, just think about what you would hate to see in a government-issued letter or a technical manual, and make sure you don’t make the same mistakes!