What is plain English?
Plain English is a style of writing that presents the intended message in a simple and effective way. It’s concise, easy-to-understand and free of jargon. Plain English puts the reader’s needs first and allows the reader to understand the message the first time they read it. It’s favoured by government and public health organisations like the NHS, for this reason.
But there are benefits for businesses and organisations too.
You may think you’re already putting your reader first and using clear language. But it’s easy to slip into bad writing habits that complicate and confuse our message. Long sentences filled with adjectives, adverbs and jargon take longer to read. Plain language is faster to read and is more effective at getting your message across. For businesses, this has other benefits like increased customer engagement.
The people who benefit from plain English
Writing in plain English means your readers will understand your web content, documents, emails, social media posts more quickly. Nearly all users benefit from this style of writing.
The average UK reading age is 9 years old. Plain language can help people who have lower literacy levels and non-native English speakers. Research suggests that academics and professionals with higher literacy rates also prefer reading plain language over complex, dense passages of text.
Using plain English makes your writing more accessible to people with learning difficulties like dyslexia.
Writing in plain English helps people:
- who have poor working memory
- are easily distracted
- are slower at reading or processing information
- have difficulty identifying the main points from a long passage of text
- have a very literal understanding of language
- are reading in a rush
Plain English also benefits people who speak English as a second language. In short, plain English helps just about all your users.
The principles of writing in plain English
So, how do you write in plain English? Here are the basics.
Keep your sentences short and concise
As a guide, clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words. However, you can still use short and punchy sentences for impact. Consider:
- sticking to just one main idea, and perhaps one other related point, per sentence
- breaking up any long sentences
- being concise by removing any unnecessary words
For example, say ‘Please’ instead of ‘I should be grateful if you would’.
Writing for the web is very different to writing for print. Try to reduce the word count by about half if you’re writing for an online audience, where people typically have less time and want information fast.
Use simple language and avoid jargon
Make sure that you say exactly what you mean, using simple words that your reader will understand. Again, imagine you are talking to your reader across a table, and avoid specialist jargon for the general public.
Likewise, consider what common words actually mean. For example, ‘perform’ is a common word used to mean ‘do’. But if someone ‘performs’ a task, does it mean that an audience was there to witness it? Often the answer is no, but an autistic person may interpret it this way.
Avoid using metaphors, similes and idioms
Using metaphors and idioms makes your writing harder to understand. Do not imply meaning by using expressions and phrases. It’s better to say ‘he really didn’t want it,’ instead of ‘it was the last thing he wanted’.
This is especially important for people who do not understand the implied meaning or may take the phrase literally. This includes people with autism and non-native English speakers.
Use the active voice instead of the passive
In the sentence ‘Peter watched the television’:
- Peter is the subject, as he is doing the action
- ‘Watched’ is the action itself and the verb
- The television is the object the action is being done to
In a sentence where the verb is active, the subject is doing the verb to the object. Peter watched the television.
In a passive sentence, you would swap the object and subject around, so that the object has the verb done to it by the subject. In this case, the television was watched by Peter. Passive sentences often contain more words and are clumsier than active ones. The active voice is quick to read and easier to understand.
Avoid using nominalisations
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the word ‘nominalisation,’ you’ve probably used them in your writing. Nominalisations change the active verb in a sentence into a noun. Examples of common nominalisations include:
Nominalised sentences are typically harder to read. This is because they require additional words to explain who the action is performed by. For example, ‘we had a discussion about the matter’ compared to ‘we discussed the matter’.
Using nominalisations increases the chance of you slipping into the passive voice to explain how the action is performed.
For example, this sentence uses both nominalisation and the passive voice:
‘An analysis of the samples was carried out by scientists at Oxford University.’
While the sentence above is grammatically correct, it’s hard to read. The sentence below shares the same information in almost half the number of words:
‘Scientists at Oxford University analysed the samples.’
Nominalisations set a passive tone and feel, and make the text longer and harder to understand.
Use clear headings and subheadings
Headings help to break up and organise your content. Using a logical heading structure is a fundamental aspect of web accessibility. Correctly-formatted H1s, H2s and H3s help people who use assistive technology, such as screen readers, to navigate a web page.
Headings that are centred around an action, for example, ‘Submit your application’ are useful as they help your reader to focus. This is even more important when writing online content, where users typically scan a webpage for the relevant information they need.
Use lists where appropriate
Lists are a great way of splitting information up and keeping your reader engaged. Bullet points present information in a succinct way without having to repeat the same context. Bullet points should be short, ideally no longer than two lines, otherwise they become difficult to read. Remember to make sure each point follows logically and grammatically from the introduction.
Be clear when giving instructions
For example, say ‘Be punchy’, rather than ‘Writers should aim to be punchy’. Commands are the fastest and most direct way of giving someone instructions.
Tip: if you feel they sound too harsh, you can often solve this by putting the word ‘please’ in front.
Other important points
- Avoid negative contractions like “don’t” “aren’t” “shouldn’t” as these are more difficult to read.
- Avoid double negatives. These can be hard enough for anyone to understand, let alone those with learning difficulties.
- Use ‘you’ for the reader and ‘we’ when referring to your organisation. Try not to speak any differently to somebody sitting across a desk from you, and this tone is often more engaging.
The impact of design and layout on your writing
All your efforts to write in plain English can be wasted if you do not consider the impact of design and layout on readability. Poor layout can make your writing inaccessible, here are some quick tips to help:
- Ensure there is high contrast between the text and background colour
- Split walls of text up into small paragraphs, to help the reader pace themselves or scan
- Use borders around all the cells of tables you use, to help readers with line tracking
- For webpages, code your font size in rem, not pixels. This means the text size will be responsive if people want to adjust the size.
In short, using plain English makes your writing better, more engaging and accessible. Nearly all your readers, whether in print or on the web, will thank you for using it.
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