What is plain language?

Plain Language

Plain language is writing that is clear, to the point, and easy to understand. The Federal Plain Language Guidelines define plain language as, "communication your audience can understand the first time..."

Plain language is useful for everyone, and crucial for users with language barriers and cognitive challenges. It improves access to services and creates a better experience for your reader.

Consider your audience

  • Target an 8th - 9th grade reading level. Just because someone can read instructions written at a grade 14 level doesn’t mean they want to. The Hemingway Editor is a free web-based tool that can help you simplify your writing.
  • Write for your intended audience. Be sure to use words and terminology that your target audience can understand.
  • Provide the most important information first. What are your users' top tasks? Make sure that information is the most prevalent.
  • Avoid jargon. Use a conversational (but professional) tone and steer clear of technical language that your audience might not be familiar with.
  • Use pronouns to improve your writing’s clarity. For example, you can use "we" for the organization and "you" for the end user.

Less is more

  • Use shorter sentences. To avoid sounding terse, sprinkle in an occasional longer sentence.
  • Keep paragraphs short. White space is your friend.
  • Cut unnecessary adverbs and modifiers. There are words like ‘very’, ‘generally’, ‘specific’, ‘rather’, and ‘really’.
  • Beware of prepositions (of, to, on) and leave out redundant words (past memories, true facts).
  • Avoid hidden verbs:
    • Say this: “Apply”
    • Not that: “Complete an application”
    • Say this: “Pay $100”
    • Not that: “Make a payment of $100”

Chunk your content

Use active voice

In many (but not all) cases, active voice is preferable over passive voice. In an active voice, the subject performs the action. In passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the action.

Example 1:

  • Active: A dog bit the man.
  • Passive: The man was bitten by a dog.

Example 2:

  • Active: The candidate believes Congress should act.
  • Passive: It is believed by the candidate that Congress should act.

Use positive language

Using negatives (and exceptions) can create a stumbling block for users. And using double negatives is doubly confusing!

Example 1:

  • A double negative: No program approval may be implied in the absence of the Chair's approval.
  • Instead, say: You must have the Chair's approval for your program.

Example 2:

  • A negative and an exception: Applicants may not submit samples, except on Tuesdays.
  • Instead, say: Applicants may submit samples on Tuesdays.

Use positive language when possible. This will improve understanding, generate results, and create goodwill.

The Perdue Writing Lab suggests, "stress what is rather than what it is not."

In the first example below, the focus is on what you want someone not to do. It's more effective to focus on what you want the user to do.

  • Negative: Don't forget.
  • Positive: Remember.

The following example shows how to elicit a more positive reaction using positive language:

  • Negative: I regret to inform you that one coat of Chem-Treat is insufficient.
  • Positive: For durable results, use two coats of Chem-Treat.

More resources

Introduction to plain language (video 4:25)

Introduction to Plain Language: Say It Simply

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