Words are symbols for what we perceive with our senses. They communicate what we think, feel and do. The more complex the idea or thought, the more difficult it is to express it precisely in words.
Plain language writing emphasizes the use of the clearest words possible to describe actions, objects and people. That often means choosing a two-syllable word over a three-syllable one, an old familiar term instead of the latest bureaucratic expression and sometimes, several clearer words instead of one complicated word.
Your choice of words should be based on what will be clearer for your reader. If you're not sure, ask. Test out your document with some of the people who are likely to use it. To help you draft easy to understand documents, here are some guidelines on your choice of words.
Use Simple, Everyday Words
Write as if someone is asking you what you mean. If you are writing for a diverse audience, sometimes you must be an interpreter as well as a writer.
Here are a few examples of simple words and phrases you might substitute:
Cut out unnecessary words
Here is a sample list of some alternative words for common, wordy expressions:
Using jargon can cause problems because your reader may not understand it. Also be wary of trendy, fashionable expressions such as "level playing field", "downtime" and "touch base". The fact that they are trendy will also mean that they will soon date your writing. Avoid them.
Instead of:Avoid or explain technical words
Whenever possible, avoid words that your readers do not know. Every occupation and interest group has special terms. These terms become a problem only when you can't distinguish between terms that are necessary work tools and terms that are jargon.
If you must use a technical term define it - either by giving a definition or by giving an example.
Glossaries are more difficult to use if they are placed at the end of a book or booklet. Try placing a box defining the words on the same page as where the word is first used.
Instead of:Don't change verbs into nouns
Nouns created from verbs are hard for the reader to understand and give the sentence an impersonal tone. When you write a noun that is derived from a verb, see if you can turn it back into a verb.
Instead of:Avoid chains of nouns
Chains of nouns are strings of two or more nouns used to name one thing. They are often difficult for a reader to understand.
Noun chains take some effort to untangle. They lack connecting words such as of, for, about, in and the possessive,'s, that would clarify how the nouns relate to each other.
Instead of:Choose your words consistently
Be consistent in what you call something. Avoid using two or more names for the same thing.
Do not be afraid to repeat the same word or the same idea if it is important.
Use acronyms carefully
Some acronyms like U.S.A. or R.C.M.P. may be so well known that they need no explanation.
Try this:In the following examples, circle the words that you think would create problems for readers and then rewrite the sentence using the principles of plain language just reviewed.
Other resources online:U.S. National Performance Review
"Simpler Words and Phrases"
Writing User-Friendly Regulations
"Avoid Words and Constructions that Cause Confusion"
The Plain Language Center in British Columbia
|Q:How can I incorporate technical language into the plain language process?|
A:Technical words should be explained in the text by either a definition or an example if there is even a remote chance that the reader may not understand.