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Plain Language

While you’ve probably heard the term “plain language” before, it may well have been in reference to medical or legal jargon. 

That level of plain language, while very important and extremely welcome, is often not enough for adults with low literacy, who may be learning English, learning to read, or both.

Plain language is a fundamental element for building an effective and respectful adult literacy program. The tips below are for clear communications specifically for adults who have low literacy. And remember – there are at least 50 million adults in the United States in that situation (if you make 3rd-grade level the cutoff – 130 million if you count 6th-grade level or below).

What do we mean by "plain language"?

Plain language is all these things:

  • Clear and direct speaking or writing, that includes all the necessary information, and leaves out unnecessary words and confusing expressions.
  • Grammatically correct speaking or writing.
  • Respectful of the audience (not patronizing or “talking down” to the person reading or listening).
  • Intentional, mindful, and courteous toward people who might be struggling to understand.
  • A work in progress! You’re unlikely to ever feel that you’re “there” when it comes to plain language. And that’s OK!

Plain language can be a real gift to those we interact with – 
The gift of respect, dignity, and understanding.

So how do we communicate more clearly?

Every situation will be different, and you can and should pay attention to your audience and adjust as you go. But these guidelines will be helpful in many situations.

1. Complexity =/= Importance

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if something’s important, we should speak and write more formally, use bigger words, etc. That can sometimes be true, especially where complexity is necessary for accuracy (e.g., in scientific papers).

But otherwise, keeping language simple, straightforward, and conversational is often a way to make language plainer and our meaning clearer.

2. Think: OPPOSITE of creative writing

When writing creatively, we look for synonyms, and interesting ways to express things. We vary sentence length and use metaphors, similes, and other creative elements. We invoke the reader’s imagination.

Plain language is the opposite of all the above. Once you’ve started using a term to refer to something, use that exact same term every time so it’s clear what you’re referring to. Don’t invoke imagination or rely on nuance; use facts and very literal terms. Keep sentences short, with a clear subject, verb, and object as often as you can.

3. Be conscious of verbal “fluff” and filler

If something’s not truly necessary, leave it out.

(How’s that for demonstrating the principle?)

4. Avoid slang and idioms

There are more of these in English than you might think. Once you become aware of them, you’ll start to see them everywhere.

When you’re trying to communicate clearly, be as literal as you can. Find the straightforward equivalent for the slang or idiom you might use in a conversation with an English-speaking friend, and use that alternative.

5. Be conscious of your word choices

Use common words and keep sentences short.

Remember that shorter words are often better choices than longer ones – but not always. Prioritize recognition, rather than always choosing the shortest word. A great example: “shot” vs “vaccination”. The short word is very confusing to many people; the long word is much clearer.

Avoid acronyms, and remember that jargon takes many forms.

When you can, choose words that are recognizable across multiple languages.

If you need information, use question words as often as possible and form your information-gathering as simple questions.

Use lots of nouns, and minimal pronouns, which can introduce ambiguity. Example: “We will give you a test. When you finish the test, we will place you in an English class.”

When you’re using plain language in spoken conversation, repeat key ideas in different words, if the person seems not have understood the first time. This gives people multiple opportunities to hear something they understand. For example:
First time: “Where do you live?” [person looks unsure]
Second time: “What’s your address?” [person still looks unsure]
Third time: “What’s the name of your street?” [person hopefully understands!]

Use “we”, “you”, and the names of people and organizations in active voice, rather than the passive. For example:
Instead of: “All clients should attend an orientation, after which you will be given a test to enable accurate class placement.”
Try: “If you want to take a class, you must come to orientation. We will give you an English test. The test will tell us which class you will be in.”

Use imperative verb forms (you can soften it with a “please”!) and be short and direct. For example:
Instead of: “Clients who have changed their address must contact ABC Org.”
Try: “Please tell us if you change your address.”
Instead of: “Further details can be found on the website.”
Try: “Look at the ABC Org website for more information.”

If you use any new, complex, or technical terms, make sure to define them (and remember that this will be a larger group of terms for those learning English and/or reading than for others).

6. In written documents, maximize simplicity

Prioritize simple structure, clean layout, and use helpful visuals when you can.

Include only the necessary information.

Use white space, bullet points, and tables. Keep design logical and clean.

Use plain fonts, and avoid ALL CAPS, italics, and underlining when you can (bold is the best way to draw attention to a word).

Use visuals consistently, and often – icons are great. Make sure you avoid childish or babyish images.

6. Review, and keep learning

Review written documents, and when you can, spoken English too. Get colleagues to help you choose better words, and practice them. Discuss the pros and cons of various word and sentence options.

When you’re reviewing, ask yourself:

  • Is the most important information obvious?
  • Can anything be removed, simplified, or presented visually?
  • Can the layout be made more streamlined, and can the font of the most important thing be enlarged?

And accept that this is an ongoing journey! You’ll win some plain language challenges, and at others you’ll do less well. You’ll revisit something you thought was great 6 months ago, and see 3 ways you could make it better. That’s fine! The main thing is that you keep going, and keep making your language as plain as you can.

Further reading:

Literacy Works (they have a Clear Language Lab and periodically offer training on plain language)

Wisconsin Literacy (they offer plain language training)

Plain Language at the National Institutes of Health (practical tips and resources)

Communicate Health (clear communication focused on health, but broadly applicable)

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