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Part of: Clear language

Plain English

Last updated: 25 February, 2020

Following this helps people with:

  • time pressures: simply written content is easier to scan and absorb

  • stress: when anxious it is harder to absorb complex language

  • multi-tasking: with divided attention, you need simple information

  • low literacy: complex vocabulary and terms may not be known

  • cognitive impairments: simple language takes less cognitive load

  • motor impairments: clear, concise content needs less navigation

  • non-fluency: whose vocabulary is less extensive

  • sight loss: RNIB recommend using plain English

  • autism: National Autistic Society advise against the use of jargon

  • first language sign language: vocabulary may be less familiar


Guidelines

Make content clear and understandable, to open the web up for users with different literacy levels and access challenges.

1. Choose easy and short words not formal, long ones.

2. Jargon and buzzwords are unlikely to be clear language.

3. Write conversationally, in first person, using the active voice.

4. Test your content with users.

Usability evidence

1. Choose easy and short words not formal, long ones.

Write for the reading comprehension of a 9 year old. This helps your content reach the most users. It also makes your content easier to scan read.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) say: "using the clearest and simplest language appropriate is highly desirable." The United Nations recommends plain language for communications.

Examples:

"buy" not "purchase"

"help" not "assist"

"about" not "approximately"

2. Jargon and buzzwords are unlikely to be clear language.

Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. Avoid them. Instead, think about what the term actually means and describe that. Be open and specific.

Example:
"Let's touch base in 10 and do some blue sky thinking." This uses jargon.
"Let's meet in 10 minutes to think of some ideas." Conveys same meaning using clear language.

3. Write conversationally, in first person, using the active voice.

Picture your audience and write as if you were talking directly to them, with the authority of someone who can help and inform.

4. Test your content with users.

What is clear to you may not be for someone else.


Usability evidence

Guideline 3.1 Readable: Make text content readable and understandable., Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, 2008

'Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities', page 4 Article 2, Definitions, The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2018

'Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts', H. Loranger, Nielsen Norman Group, 2017

'The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication', C. R. Trudeau in 14 Scribes J. Leg. Writing 121. 2012

‘Guidelines for authoring comprehensible web pages and evaluating their success’, Spyridakis, J. H., Technical Communication, pp. 368 to 73, checklist pp. 376 to 8. 2000

'Plain language in the US gains momentum: 1940–2015', Schriver, K. A., Transactions in Professional Communication, volume 60, issue 4, pages 343 to 383, 2017

'Brevity. Note by the Prime Minister', W. Churchill, 1940 and 1951

‘Reading and navigational strategies of web users with lower literacy skills’, Summers, K and M. Summers, 2005 

'Writing content for everyone', Roz Strachan, Government Digital Service, 2016

'Strengthening plain language', International Plain Language Federation. Undated.

Plain Language Commission style guide, Plain Language Commission, 2011

'The principles of readability', Impact Information, William H. DuBay, 2004

Plain language entry, Wikipedia, last updated 2018

‘Technical language, advice understandability, and perceptions of expertise and trustworthiness: the case of the financial planner’, Joiner, T.A., Australian Journal of Management, 27, 1, pp. 25 to 45. 2002. Locked.

Comprehension of legal contracts by non-experts: effectiveness of plain language redrafting', Masson, M.E.J. and M.A. Waldron, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8,19. 1994

‘More individual difference in language attainment: how much do adult native speakers know about passives and quantifiers’, Street, J. and E. Dabrowska, Lingua, 120, pp. 2080 to 94. 2010. Locked. Related free access paper 'Individual Differences in First and Second Language Ultimate Attainment and Their Causes', E. Dabrowska, 2018

‘Problems in public documents’, Rose, A., Information Design Journal, 2/3, 4, pp. 179 to 196. 1981. Locked.

‘What makes a good document? The criteria we use’, Waller, R., Simplification Centre Technical paper no. 2, Reading: University of Reading, 2011

‘Revising functional documents: the scenario principle’, Flower, L., Hayes J. R., and Swarts, H., in P. V. Anderson, R. J. Brockman and C. R. Miller (eds) New essays in technical and scientific communication: research, theory and practice, Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Publishing Co, pp. 109 to 36. 1983. Locked.
Reading review of the Flower, Hayes and Swarts paper, ENGL 8500, 2014

‘Dyslexia and accessibility/usability: a research review’, McCarthy, J., 2006

'Effects of language fluency and graphic animation on modality choices by adults when following online explanatory demonstrations', Wright, P. and others, 2009


Relevant wiki content


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