What is Plain Language and Why Does It Matter?

Published October 15, 2020

Plain language can be understood the first time it is read or heard. It is also called plain English or plain writing. As a communication strategy, it can save time, money, and effort. When people understand messages quickly and fully, there will usually be less confusion, less need for re-explanation, and fewer mistakes. On the other hand, jargon, legalese, and other overly-complex language create unnecessary barriers to understanding.

What is plain language?

The U.S. government actually provides a definition for plain language in the Plain Writing Act of 2010 as, "Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field, and intended audience."

According to the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a group within the federal government, you can check if your language is plain and accessible by asking yourself these questions:

  • Can the audience find what they need?
  • Can they understand the information the first time?
  • Can they act on this understanding?

Plain language can be useful in websites, apps, books, lesson plans, lectures, speeches, letters, brochures, social media posts, instructions, disclaimers, terms and conditions, and many other formats and situations. Plain language can make online information easier for search engines to find and easier for readers to quickly scan on screens.

Government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, educators, and many others can use plain language to communicate effectively. Plain language can be very important in healthcare settings so that medical providers and patients fully understand each other. The World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) all encourage plain language.

Now we will look at some specific tips for writing in plain language.

Tips for writing in plain language

The U.S. National Archives offers helpful principles for plain language. They are listed below. Some have been shortened or paraphrased.

  • Write for the reader, not for yourself.
  • Use pronouns in your writing (PLAIN explains why using pronouns can be helpful).
  • State the major points before any details.
  • Stick to your topic.
  • Cover one idea in each paragraph, and keep paragraphs short.
  • Write in an active voice (to explore writing in active and passive voices, check out Merriam-Webster's explanation).
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use everyday words. If you use technical terms, explain them the first time you use them.
  • Don’t use more words than you need.
  • Keep the subject and verb close together (PLAIN shares an explanation of this strategy).
  • Use headings, lists, and tables to make reading easier.
  • Proofread your work, and have someone else proofread it, too.

A myth about plain language

Hoa Loranger is vice president of the Nielsen Norman Group, which specializes in user experience research. In an article called, "Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts," she wrote about the myth that plain language "dumbs down content and thus insults intelligent readers."

Loranger explains why this is not true: mainly because everyone deserves and appreciates clear communication. "No one has ever complained that a text was too easy to understand," she writes. And, Nielson Norman’s research found highly educated online readers prefer easy-to-understand information. Loranger also points out how important plain language is for international audiences and people who may be using English as a second language.

"If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough," Albert Einstein said. In this light, the use of plain language is a sign of expertise.

Learn more about plain language

If you would like to learn more about using plain language, there are many resources available. Here are a few:

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