Plain English, also known as plain language, is language that is defined as "easy to read, understand, and use" and as "writing that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it."
Many people take their reading skills for granted, and don't realise how easy it is for those with reading and writing difficulties to be excluded from so many aspects of daily life. Since the late 70s, there has been a growing tendency to ensure that documents and other printed material aimed at the general public, such as leaflets, application forms and safety instructions, be written in language that is easily understandable and to the point, avoiding ambiguity, wordiness, jargon and excessively legal or bureaucratic language. In other words, it should be put in plain English. The basic idea is that literary eloquence is best left to literature. Another important consideration is that even in the developed world, up to a quarter of the population have weak literacy skills, to which must be added large numbers of elderly people, people with disabilities and users of public or private services in general. Anyone who is not a telecommunications engineer or a geek and who has been unable to understand the user's guide for their new cellphone or whatever, knows perfectly well these difficulties. By way of anecdote, the Gobbledygook generator at Plain English.org gave the following for the phrase "language learning": " At base level, this just comes down to responsive relative capability."
Both commercial companies and public administrations have realised the value of writing their texts in plain English, as it:
- helps all readers understand the information;
- avoids misunderstandings;
- saves time because the reader understands everything first time round without having to re-read;
- helps people find necessary information quickly;
It is recommended for use in all kinds of public information, "such as forms, leaflets, agreements and contracts. The golden rule is that plain English should be used in any information the public rely on when they make decisions."
In 1998, President Clinton issued an executive memo requiring agencies to write in plain language, and many states in the US now require insurance contracts to be in plain English. In Canada and Australia, many new laws must actually be drafted in plain English.
The guidelines below are based on a leaflet drawn up by Jennifer Lynch at the Irish National Adult Literacy Agency.
Writers must have a clear idea of their target audience and the material must suit this group, using clear and concise language, in other words, they must put themselves in their reader’s shoes.
- Use "everyday" words whenever possible.
- When using abbreviations, define each one the first time you use it.
- Long sentences can be hard work for people with low literacy skills. An average sentence length of up to 15 to 20 words is fine.
- Use I and we in your documents to give your organisation a personal touch.
- Use active verbs whenever possible. When speaking we tend to use sentences with active verbs (subject – verb – object) but passive verbs (object – verb – subject) when writing. The passive voice is often more difficult for adults with reading problems to understand.
- Headings and subheadings help people work their way a text.
- A table of contents is very useful for longer texts.
- Limit each paragraph to one idea. Leave space between paragraphs - this is especially true of texts to be read on a computer screen.
- Use a questions and answers (FAQs) format - it's a very effective way to get information across. Like the table of contents, it avoids having to read the full document and readers can go straight to the area which particularly interests them.
Test your document with people who are likely to use it. Ask them for their opinion.
Graphs and images can complement text and are often a welcome break from large amounts of text. They can also be a good way of emphasising important facts and figures.