Plain English is a way of presenting information that helps someone understand it the first time they read or hear it. It allows them to get the information they need, understand it easily and act if they need to.
When you use plain English you:
- write in clear language
- give relevant information in the right order
- help people find information quickly.
Plain English – before and after
To see the difference made by plain English, have a look at these 'before' and 'after' examples.
The hospital patient has the right to information relevant to his situation that must allow the patient the fullest insight into all aspects of his situation, medical and otherwise, and, on an informed basis, enable him to make his own decisions or to participate in decisions which have implications for his or her wellbeing.
You have a right to information about your condition that helps you fully understand it and make informed choices about your treatment.
Inhalation of vapour phase particulate matter chemical contaminants from biomass combustion in domestic settings is a significant contributor to local disease burden.
Household wood smoke causes local health problems.
Sometimes people think plain English 'dumbs down' complex information, but this isn't so. Plain English is about communicating to your reader or listener in language they understand, whether they are specialists, colleagues or members of the public.
Most people do not want to have to read material more than once to understand the message and decide what to do next. While complex language is sometimes necessary, most of the time plain English is more suitable.
What are the benefits of plain English?
- Plain English saves time and money, and avoids misunderstandings.
- It increases the chances that everyone will understand your message, including adults who have difficulty reading.
- It makes it easier for people to make informed judgements, including about their rights and responsibilities.
- The clarity it brings means people are more likely to use services. They will also feel more confident in the people providing them, which can mean fewer mistakes, complaints and unnecessary queries.
- Instructions in plain English are easier for staff to understand and follow.
- Clearly presented information shows respect and consideration for your reader, which can help build better relationships.
Examples of the practical and financial benefits of plain English
An Australian private health fund changed the wording of a letter about a premium rise and saved the company $2 million in call centre costs over two years.
A team in a US government department that handles unclaimed property rewrote 400 form letters into plain English. A year later, they had 18,000 fewer phone queries than the previous year. Staff processed more claims and also felt better about their jobs because they weren't answering the same questions over and over.
The plain English movement
Plain English is known in some places as plain language. There are plain language movements in many parts of the world, including the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal, Mexico and the European Commission.
A simplified form of plain English known as Easy English is also being used more and more. Helpful for people with intellectual disabilities, low literacy or where English is not their first language, it uses images and icons to support text, large font sizes and lots of white space on the page.
Getting started with plain English
As you start to work more and more with plain English, remember that just because it's easy to read doesn't mean it's always easy to write. It takes time and practice to do it well – but the rewards are great.
Plain English and science writing, Anne E Greene,
The Chicago Manual of Style Online,
www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/shopTalk/June-2013-Shop-Talk.html, viewed 22 September 2013
'An end to dead letter days', Caitlin O'Toole,
Financial Review, 9 May 2008.
US Government Plain Language website,
www.plainlanguage.gov/whypl/benefits/bottomline.cfm, viewed 22 September 2013.
For more information about Easy English, see