Plain language: It’s not just for children

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Posted on 
August 22, 2022

Everyone seems to struggle to implement the concept of using plain language in their writing. So what does plain language really mean?

It’s not, as some seem to think, writing so children can understand the words. We’re writing for adults (usually well-educated adults) who are very busy and who have to deal with many issues over the course of their day. The ease with which they read your text helps them to make decisions more quickly and easily.

The goal of plain language is to enable the reader to read your text once and immediately understand it, so they can then complete an associated task. No one reads at work for fun! Everyone has a purpose in reading: a decision to make or an action to take. Your text is there to guide them; so the more quickly and easily they can understand exactly what you’ve written, the more quickly and easily they can make a decision or take action.

Word length

One of the key factors in readability is the use of shorter words. Did you know that 98 of the 100 most common words in the English language have five or fewer letters? Yes! And those other two words are “because” and “people.” These 100 words are common because people know exactly what they mean. No one has to think about what they might mean. Shorter words help readers understand your key points and the implications of your key points quickly.

Let’s look at an example: “onomatopoeia.” That’s a word that resembles the sound it makes. Think “meow” or “whoosh.” It might sound very impressive to use the word “onomatopoeia,” but it won’t impress a reader who doesn’t know what it means. Just use the word that resembles the sound.

Consider a word that you’ve perhaps used repeatedly: “endeavour.” It means “try.” Granted, “try” isn’t as flashy as “endeavour,” and “try” certainly doesn’t roll off your tongue the way “endeavour” does. For readers, that doesn’t matter. What’s important to them is that they immediately know what you’re telling them. Comprehension with speed matters to readers.

Verbs, verbs, verbs!

A second key factor in readability is the use of active voice verbs. Your sentences are clearer when you use active voice verbs and you stay away from passive voice. Active voice verbs clearly indicate who is performing the action in the sentence, making those sentences easier to read and faster to understand. Further, translators find sentences with active voice verbs much easier to translate accurately than sentences with passive voice verbs.

A third key factor in readability is the use of dynamic and precise verbs. If you’re serious about wanting the reader to actually read your whole document, you have to give them a reason to. Make it interesting, not dry! Use verbs that evoke images. The more precise you can be with your verbs, the more engaging and clearer your writing is. Yes, you can obfuscate. (Do you like that verb? It means “to hide or confuse or cover up.”) But that won’t get you what you need. Readers are pretty smart; they usually have a fairly good sense about text that’s hiding something, and they aren’t impressed by that text. Verbs with clear meanings make your text easier to understand.

Sentence length

While there are about 10 other key factors in readability, I’ll leave you with just one more: Keep your sentences under 25 words each, and vary the length of sentences in a paragraph. The longer the sentence is, the harder it is for the reader to go from the capital letter to the period and retain the important parts. Shorter is clearer. Long sentences can lose the reader, because they’re not easily readable.

In this post, we’ve discussed plain language and why it’s important. We’ve also discussed four ways to increase the readability of your text. Use them and let us know what kind of feedback you receive!

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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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Short and excellent list of why Plain Language works, and how.

I will "borrow" your 98-out-of-100 comment. It must be "because" "people" like clear writing they get the first time!

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