Plain language for effective communication in English - Part 1

The main goal of using plain language is to put your message across clearly, quickly and effectively to your reader

Tasneem HossainTasneem Hossain
Published : 12 Oct 2022, 10:45 PM
Updated : 12 Oct 2022, 10:45 PM

I still remember when I was a student I was reprimanded for using simple words. I was told that the language was too childish. Also, when I started my job I was asked to use bombastic and flowery language.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a report, email, newspaper or other publications and giving up because you couldn’t grasp the meaning? Or reading a document innumerable times, to figure out what it meant? If so, it may be because it wasn’t written in plain language.

The main goal of using plain language is to put your message across clearly, quickly and effectively to your reader. Here lies the effectiveness and beauty of plain language.

Today, Oct 13, is International Plain Language Day. It’s celebrated internationally to create awareness among people about the importance of plain language.

Two plain language professionals, Cheryl Stephens and Kate Harrison Whiteside, initiated International Plain Language Day in the early 1990s. Later, the first International Plain Language Day was celebrated on Oct 13, 2011, to popularise plain language for the public. The date coincides with the US Plain Writing Act signed in 2010. It requires federal agencies to write “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”

Plain language is more than just using simple words. A vast variety of factors are involved. Vocabulary is only one of those factors. It also depends on consistency and conciseness; correct usage of grammar and sentence structures. Furthermore, it’s about the way you organise the tools and message to flow logically into a coherent piece of communication.

Plain language has become legally mandatory for government agencies’ official websites in many cases. It has also become the standard way of communication in businesses communicating with the general audience. It’s used in manuals, websites, letters, emails or any written communication for effective communication. It allows businesses a competitive advantage by reducing confusion, miscommunications, complaints and inquiries from customers. The result: increased revenue and customer loyalty.

Plain language isn’t only important for people with low literacy or poor academic skills but also with the highest academic levels and expertise. They are the ones, who often read the most. They have limited time to spend on reading pages and pages of complicated writing. Moreover, these days people have short attention spans. The average reader’s attention span is only seven seconds. A writer needs to capture the attention of the reader quickly and get the message across easily. Plain Language is the answer to all these.

Did you know that the Royal Mail in the UK saved £500,000 by using a plain language form instead of a complex one?

If only, all of us realised the value of using plain language!

When you write or speak in plain language, you deliver your message more quickly. More people understand and remember it. You spend less time explaining and fixing mistakes. People are motivated to read or listen. Plain Language saves you time, money, work, and frustration.

The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) has members working around the world. They have speakers of Dutch, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Italian, Malay, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish origins.

Each language has its own unique plain language techniques and strategies. But the common goal is to use clear communication for everyone around the globe.

English language is often referred to as a 'world language' and is undeniably the most dominant business language worldwide. In this context, Plain English is the demand of modern-day communication, specifically business communication.

Being a consultant trainer, by profession, I have been trying to popularise Plain English on a corporate level for the last 20 years.

Plain English is a way of writing and presenting information that helps readers understand it the first time they read or hear it. The document is clear, short and well-organised. It gets your message across in the shortest possible time for a wider audience to act upon. There is less chance of being misunderstood; saves time and money.

Before you begin writing, take some time to analyse. Why are you writing? What message do you want to get across to the reader? What questions will your audience ask? Ensure that your audience finds what they need. Ask questions using the 5 Ws & 1H concept.

•​Who

•​What

•​Why

•​Where

•​When and

•​How.

​These are termed the journalist’s questions. One question word can have more than one use. Answering these questions will help you give complete information to your reader. While analysing, don’t assume your reader knows all.

You may follow the tips given below in your writing to make it easier and more effective for your reader(s):

● Why are you writing? What’s the purpose of your writing? What do you want from the reader?

● Know your reader; Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Analyse her/his knowledge level on the particular subject that you are writing about. Ask yourself what words or concepts your reader is likely to know. Give only that much information which is required. Focus on the reader’s mindset and feelings. Set the tone accordingly.

● Use personal pronouns when writing to individuals and even when addressing large audiences. Use you for your reader and we for your organisation. Depending upon your relationship and the formality of the message I can also be used when both the relationship and message are a little informal. Don’t be afraid to get personal. People relate better to information that talks directly to them.

● Use common everyday words and phrases. Keep it simple. E.g. instead of using ‘deem’ use ‘consider’; Instead of ‘concur’ use ‘agree.’ Avoid difficult words and terms to get your message across easily. Mark Twain said, "I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city."- see the difference?

● Be consistent in the usage of grammar and spelling. Use either the American or British spellings according to your reader’s preference.

● Use active voice rather than passive except in a few special cases. A message is intended for some kind of action on the part of the reader and an active voice sets the tone for taking action. Use active voice to make it clear who is responsible. Writing in the active voice will make your sentences shorter and easier to understand.

● Simplify complex sentences. Because, sometimes, when the punctuation isn’t done correctly the meaning gets distorted.

● Shorten lengthy sentences. Keep sentences to an average of 15 to 20 words. You have limited time to convey what you mean. Our attention spans are short, and your sentences should be, too.

● Write short paragraphs with one idea in each paragraph. Limit the paragraphs to five sentences or fewer, if possible.

● Avoid bureaucratic and legal language.

● Avoid jargon (special or technical words or expressions used by a profession, group or organisation). Use jargon only when it’s familiar to all your readers. If you know your readers are familiar with some terms or jargon that make your content shorter, use them. Even then too much jargon can make it difficult for the reader. Use those sparingly. If it’s a must to use the jargon for those who may not know the term, define it the first time you use it.

● Spell out any abbreviations the first time. Don’t use more than two or three abbreviations in each written document. Define acronyms more than once. If necessary, provide a glossary.

● Avoid redundant words. Meaningless words and phrases waste space and time. Eliminate unnecessary words. E.g. Past experience- experience is always from the past. Actual fact- fact is always actual. These extra words are for giving colour to our creative writings in literature. In business, these should be avoided, as these are time wasters.

● Avoid gender-biased words at all times.

● Use strong subjects and verbs. Keep the subject and verb close together to avoid confusion.

Keeping all these in mind write, revise and have the final draft. Keep it aside for one or two days (maybe more in case of reports) and then revise it again for the final document. If it’s an email or a letter which needs quick delivery, keep it aside for some time. In between, eat something or do something else. Read again. You might notice that there are still some questions left unanswered.

I know time is precious. But what’s the point of writing, if it doesn’t bring positive results?

[The rest of the article is available in the second part].

[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]

Reference:

1. Law and requirement, plainlanguage.gov.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher