clear communication: use clear words and expressions

(A similar topic is discussed in French in the article Communication claire : choisissez des mots clairs.)

To make your texts easy to understand, you must have not only an excellent grasp of your topic but also an idea of how much your readers already know.

Whenever possible, choose words that the readers are familiar with. If you need to use more complex words, there are techniques you can use to make them easier to understand, as you will see below.

On this page

Use simple words and phrases

In the list below, the column on the right gives a more straightforward and often shorter way to express the same idea:

Ways to replace long expressions
Instead of Use
After this is accomplished Then
at an early date soon
facilitate help, make possible
five in number five
in the absence of without
It would be appropriate for me
to begin by saying that
owing to the fact that because, since

Use appropriate expressions and references

For example, the expression la langue de Molière in a French document would make perfect sense to Francophone readers. But the concept may not translate as well into an English document for Anglophone or allophone readers. In this case, it would be more straightforward, and less likely to cause confusion, to say French instead of the language of Molière.

Also, keep in mind that some terms can refer to different concepts. For example, in Canada, college refers to a post-secondary technical or vocational institution that confers diplomas or certificates, while university refers to a post-secondary institution of advanced learning that confers degrees. In the US, college refers to post-secondary educational institutions in general (both colleges and universities). Therefore, if you are writing for a Canadian audience, be sure to make the distinction between college and university.

In short, your readers will find your texts easier to understand if you eliminate the guesswork. Try to imagine any questions your readers might have, and answer them in your text.

Avoid jargon and unfamiliar acronyms or expressions

This is especially important when you are writing for the public. Even for internal documents, consider using an alternative expression if some of your readers may not know the specialized term. Expressions such as roll out, stakeholder and re-engineering may be unclear except to a specialized audience and tend to be overused.

Administrative jargon and officialese can cloud the message and make it incomprehensible to many readers.

Instead of this:

  • The challenges of the position involve ensuring the provision of delivery of the program in the most efficient manner possible in light of an ever-changing client profile which is impacted on by the adjustments to the programs necessitated by changing federal legislation and by the incidence of federal cutbacks in resource allotments.

Write this:

  • The challenges of the position include delivering the program as efficiently as possible in light of an ever-changing client profile, changes in federal legislation and resource cutbacks.

Explain complex terms and ideas

Make sure that complex notions or subtle distinctions are clarified.

The following sentence requires specialized knowledge on the reader’s part:

  • Holders of locked-in RRSPs, currently limited to purchases of life annuities with those funds, will be allowed to purchase life income funds.

Is it clear to the reader how “locked-in RRSPs” differ from other RRSPs and what the distinction between “life annuities” and “life income funds” is? If not, explain these notions before going on.

In some cases, adding a few words is enough to help the reader:

  • Your request concerns paragraph 14(2)(a), which deals with privacy issues.
  • The family doctor will refer her patient to a nephrologist—a kidney specialist.
  • This process destroys anaerobic micro-organisms, in other words, organisms that can survive without oxygen.

Use concrete examples

Here are some examples:

  • A stereotype is a false or exaggerated preconceived opinion about an individual or group. For example, the notion that all adolescents are drug users is a stereotype.
  • Please show the clerk two pieces of ID (e.g. driver’s licence, passport, birth certificate).

Use comparisons

Here are some examples:

  • The hard drive is the brain of a computer.
  • He bought a lot measuring 12,000 square metres (about the size of two football fields).

Avoid chains of nouns

Nouns can modify other nouns in English, but three or more nouns in a row can obscure the meaning: the reader has to differentiate between the concepts and decide how the nouns are interrelated. Examples of noun chains abound in administrative writing:

  • departmental expenditure increase review
  • investment income deferral advantage
  • post-selection feedback session
  • employment insurance premium rate increases

It is easier for the reader to understand the message if some of the nouns are linked by prepositions such as of, for, to and in.

The first example could be reformulated as “a review of increases in departmental expenditures.” Although the revised version uses more words, it is clearer and simpler to read.

Copyright notice for Writing Tips Plus

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool created and made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

Search by related themes

Want to learn more about a theme discussed on this page? Click on a link below to see all the pages on the Language Portal of Canada that relate to the theme you selected. The search results will be displayed in Language Navigator.