More about plain language

Posted on May 29, 2023

In my previous blog post Plain language: It’s not just for children (opens in new tab), I talked about shorter words, active voice verbs, precise verbs, and sentence length. Let’s look now at a few other factors that help your reader understand exactly what you’re telling them the first time they read your text.


I know you’ve heard “Be clear and concise” many times, as though those two items go hand in hand. They don’t. Being clear matters far more than being concise. It helps no one if what you write is so short that they don’t understand it. You might need to add a few words, a phrase or even a sentence to make your point clear. Do it! That saves your reader from confusion and misunderstanding and saves you from responding to queries about clarity.

Verbs, not nouns

Many of the multi-syllabic nouns that writers love to use end in “–ment,” “–tion” or “–ance.” The problem with those nouns is that you usually use a very weak verb with them. Change those nouns into verbs for a more powerful, clearer sentence.

Take this example: “The company has the intention to begin its participation in an employee benefit plan on April 1.” In this sentence, you have a weak verb: “has.” You also have “intention” and “participation,” which are long, abstract nouns. Now consider this revised wording: “The company intends to participate in an employee benefit plan starting April 1.” You now have two strong verbs: “intends” and “participate.”

The second version of the sentence is more action-oriented and shorter than the first version. Because it’s clearer, shorter and more action-oriented, it’s immediately faster to understand and more interesting for the reader. This increases the likelihood that your reader will actually read all, or at least more, of what you wrote.

Verbs are the power words in sentences. They propel a reader through the sentence, through the paragraph, through the document. Use them to best effect.

Noun strings

You can further improve your writing and help your reader understand faster by eliminating long strings of nouns and adjectives. Writers who are very knowledgeable about a particular field or topic are often guilty of using noun strings. If their readers are also very knowledgeable, that can be acceptable. However, when your reader is not an expert like you, it’s imperative to break apart the noun string, so they immediately understand your message. Use prepositions and possessives to make your sentences more readable.

Who’s guilty of writing something like “multi-jurisdictional stakeholder engagement strategy meeting”? That phrase has 4 words that act as adjectives to 1 noun (4:1 ratio); and, if you change “multi-jurisdictional” to “multiple jurisdictions,” the ratio is now 5:1. This is a great way to confuse and lose your reader: they don’t understand what you’re saying.

Try something like “meeting to engage stakeholders from many jurisdictions.” Notice the differences:

  • Adding a preposition makes the meaning clear
  • Using “engage” provides a dynamic verb
  • Changing from “multi-jurisdictional” to “many jurisdictions” speeds comprehension

The best practice is a maximum of 3 words that act as adjectives to 1 noun (a 3:1 ratio), but be careful! Even that length can be confusing to a non-technical reader. For example, consider the phrase “confusing regulation revisions.” That’s short, but what does that really mean? Is the meaning “revisions to a confusing regulation”? Or is it “confusing revisions to a regulation”? Break apart confusing noun strings by adding prepositions and possessives. Help your reader to understand what you’re saying the first time they read the phrase.


Yet another way to improve the clarity of your message is to eliminate what I call “fluff’n’fill”: phrases that pump up a sentence, making it look more substantial while contributing nothing to its meaning. Fluff’n’fill phrases have no value, yet the reader has to wade through them to get to the meat of the sentence.

Some examples of phrases to avoid include:

  • on the grounds that (instead, use “because”)
  • during the time of (simply use “during”)
  • at this point in time (try using “now”)
  • in the absence of (“without”)
  • in view of the fact that (“because”)

You probably have some favourite fluff’n’fill phrases peppered throughout your texts; get rid of them. Carefully edit your writing to pare down the useless words and stay focused on your key message.

In this post, we’ve reviewed the importance of being clear. Then we explored the weakness of using lengthy nouns as compared to the strength of using verbs to increase a sentence’s impact. Further, we clarified the confusing nature of noun strings and how to eliminate confusion. Last, we discussed ways to replace unnecessary phrases with focused words.

Add these tips to your writing arsenal, along with the tips in my previous post, and you’re well on your way to becoming a writer whose documents people welcome.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Elva Keip

Elva Keip

Elva Keip works as a consultant and provides both training and writing services to clients. Most of her courses focus on writing well. Regardless of the topic, every course features a brief section on using plain language to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. She loves writing documents and supporting other people as they enhance their writing skills.


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Submitted by Nadia Helal on May 29, 2023, at 13:50

There is nothing worse than getting emails longer than the link to the actual content. Thanks for sharing these helpful writing tips!

Submitted by Chantal on May 30, 2023, at 13:00

This blog is very insightful and useful! Especially since English is my second language. Thank you so much!