How to write in plain English

So what’s plain English?

Plain English  – destroying some of the myths about it.

  •  It’s not ‘cat sat on the mat or ‘Peter and Jane’ writing. Almost anything – from leaflets and letters to legal documents – can be written in plain English without being patronising or over-simple.
  • It doesn’t mean reducing the length or changing the meaning of your message..
  • It’s not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar. Nor is it about letting grammar slip.
  • It is not an amateur’s method of communication. Most forward-looking senior managers always write in plain English.

Basically the advantages of plain English are:

  • it is faster to write;
  • it is faster to read; and
  • you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.

So what is plain English? It is a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.

Keep your sentences short

Clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words.

This does not mean making every sentence the same length. Be punchy. Vary your writing by mixing short sentences (like the last one) with longer ones (like this one), following the basic principle of sticking to one main idea in a sentence, plus perhaps one other related point. You should soon be able to keep to the average sentence length quite easily.

Activity and passiveness

You want your letters to sound active which is crisp and professional rather than passive which sounds stuffy and bureaucratic.

Peter watched the television. Here, we can call Peter the doer and the television the thing. The verb is watched. In almost all sentences that contain active verbs, the doer comes first, then the verb and then the thing.

With passive verbs, the thing comes first: The television was watched by Peter. You can see that by making the sentence passive, we have had to introduce the words was and by, and the sentence becomes more clumsy.

The doer is not always a person and the thing is not always a thing! ‘The tree crushed Peter’ is active but ‘Peter was crushed by the tree’ is passive.

Good uses of passives

 There are times of course when you should use a passive. 

  • To make something less hostile – ‘this bill has not been paid’ (passive) is softer than ‘you have not paid this bill’ (active).
  • To avoid taking the blame -‘a mistake was made’ (passive) rather than ‘we made a mistake’ (active).
  • When you don’t know who or what the doer is – ‘the England team has been picked’.
  • If it simply sounds better.

Talk to the reader

It is important that you put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Imagine you are sitting talking to your reader across a table. You will find that using shorter sentences and active verbs will help you to do this.

You and we

Try to call the reader ‘you’, even if the reader is only one of many people you are talking about generally.

Understandable words

When you are talking to your reader, say exactly what you mean, using the simplest words that fit. This does not necessarily mean only using simple words – just words that the reader will understand.

Don’t use jargon that is part of your working life unless you are writing to someone who uses the same jargon. If a teacher is writing to an education officer, the jargon word SATs could be very useful in saving time and space. But you wouldn’t use it when writing to a parent.

So in general, keep to everyday English whenever possible. And again, imagine talking to your reader across a table.

Giving instructions

Sit!

Brush your teeth.

Please send it to me.

These are all commands – officially called imperatives. They are the fastest and most direct way of giving someone instructions.

However, if we asked a hardened bureaucrat to write these expressions, we would end up with something like this:

Dogs are advised that they should sit down.

Your teeth should be brushed.

I should be grateful if you would send it to me.

There always seems to be a fear of commands. The most common fault is putting ‘customers should do this’ or ‘you should do this’ instead of just ‘do this’. Perhaps people worry that commands sound too harsh. But if you put the word ‘please’ in front -‘ please do this’ – the problem goes away.

Get rid of nominalisations

A nominalisation is a type of abstract noun. (Is that plain English?) In other words, it is the name of something that isn’t a physical object but a process, technique or emotion.

Nominalisations are formed from verbs.

For example:

Verb

Nominalisation

complete

completion

introduce

introduction

provide

provision

fail

failure

arrange

arrangement

investigate

investigation

So what’s wrong with them?

The problem is that often they are used instead of the verbs they come from. And because they are merely the names of things, they sound as if nothing is actually happening in the sentence. Like passive verbs, too many of them make writing very dull and heavy-going.

Here are some examples.

We had a discussion about the matter.

  • We discussed the matter.

 There will be a stoppage of trains by drivers.

  • Drivers will stop the trains.

 Other points to consider

Sounding positive

Always try to emphasise the positive side of things.

For example:

If you don’t send your payment, we won’t be able to renew your membership of the scheme. (negative)

  • Please send your payment so that we can renew your membership of the scheme. (positive)
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