Plain language: expression

Expression means the words you choose and the way you assemble them into sentences. This is what many people think of first when it comes to Plain Language.

Choose simple words

You may have an impressive vocabulary and you may have spent years familiarizing yourself with the jargon, acronyms, and legalese of your profession. That is great as it will enrich your reading experience.

When writing in Plain Language the rule is to choose the shortest, simplest word that conveys your idea. 

Exercise Six: Latinate

Keep sentences short

Express only one idea in each sentence.

Long, complicated sentences show that you aren't sure about what you want to say. Shorter sentences break up complex information up into small, easy-to-process units.

Don't make all your sentences follow the same pattern: this will make your writing sound choppy and unnatural. Keep variety and interest in your writing, but don't add unnecessary words.

Exercise Seven: Sentence Shortening

Look for excessive prepositions

If you need help to shorten your sentences, look for the prepositions.  Those are the little connecting words like of, to, in, by, like, about, as, at, before, on, with, etc. You can probably shorten a sentence containing more than three or four prepositions.

Look for common wordy phrases

Certain wordy phrases are often used in the place of single simple words. If a single short word gets the message across, use it instead. Be direct.

Exercise Eight: Cut Wordy Phrases

Use a conversational tone

Conversational writing is natural and direct. In revising this section, I changed "speak directly to the reader of your page" to "speak directly to your reader".  It is simpler, shorter, and less abstract.

  • Speak directly to your reader by using pronouns such as you and they.
  • Use the most simple, direct verb tense that makes sense. The present tense is usually best.
  • Use contractions when the contraction is what you'd say out loud—here are some examples:
    • they are → they're
    • the dog belonging to the resident → the resident's dog
    • do not → don't (unless you really want to emphasize the not!)

Use the active voice

The active voice makes it clear who is responsible for an action. Passive sentences (of which this is an example) are often used to hide the person or agency responsible for an action. Clarify your writing by making the subject of the sentence do the action.

Exercise Nine: Changing Verbs from Passive to Active

Exercise Ten: Sentence Simplification

Continue to Plain Language: Evaluation