Plain Language Principles
“Plain language” means writing that reduces jargon, or specialized words, in favor of more common words with the same meanings. Where jargon must be used, we define it and adopt a nickname where appropriate. We write in American English and have based the principles in this section on the Federal Plain Language Guidelines, citation below.
Principle 1: Know the Audience
- Separate information for different audiences. Reduce the space between writer and reader by writing in second person, which uses “you” and “we” as primary characters.
- Organize information, prioritizing a reader’s tendency to scan and skim.
- Start with the conclusion that most broadly applies, then move through exceptions, conditions, and specialized information, ending with the least important information.
- Keep sections brief enough to be well summarized in a heading.
- Write readable headings that form a readable table of contents.
- Limit heading levels and list levels to three or fewer levels.
- Contain paragraphs to a topic sentence and two or three details.
Principle 2: Use the Rule and Limitation of Threes
The writing rule of threes holds that ideas given in threes are more interesting and memorable than ideas presented in other numbers. We apply the rule of threes to:
- Heading levels,
- List levels, and
- Items in a series.
Our writing limitation of threes holds that more than three of some writing tools tend to increase confusion and decrease readability. We apply the limitation of threes to:
- Words in a noun phrase, or group of words that act like a noun,
- Total number of distinct abbreviations and acronyms,
- Bullet points on a single presentation slide, and
- Bulleted talking points.
Based on the needs of any specific project, we adapt our approach to the rule and limitation.
Principle 3: Words Matter
We choose words and craft sentences, paragraphs, and sections to maximize the reader’s access to the document’s message.
Nouns and pronouns inform the reader who is acting and what is required.
- Sacrifice brevity in favor of clarity. Cut non-essential words but add articles and prepositions to clarify the relationships among words.
- Avoid using a noun as a verb.
- Expect the reader to have the general knowledge base of the intended audience.
- Prefer introducing a nickname (“the committee”, “the Act”) rather than an acronym or abbreviation.
Verbs inform the reader of past, present, or future action.
- Use action verbs more frequently than being verbs. Action verbs clarify the actor. Being verbs hide the actor by highlighting the thing being acted upon. When the law itself is the actor, use being verbs.
- Select a verb tense as needed. Use present tense verbs for simple and strong sentences. Use present and future tense as required to indicate timing.
- Avoid the hidden verb converted into a noun and requiring another verb. For example, “complete fulfillment” hides the verb “fulfill”. Hidden verbs often:
- End in a suffix like -ment, -tion, -sion, -ance, or
- Hide between the words “the” and “of”.
- Use contractions when appropriate: write to the reader as you would talk to the reader.
- Make clear when a statement is mandated, prohibited, permitted, and recommended. The word “shall” is both obsolete and imprecise.
|Clear Word Choice||Indication|
- Balance precision and concision with thoughtful word choice.
|Short words||Long words|
|Familiar words||Far-fetched words|
|Concrete words||Abstract words|
|Single words||Excessive words|
|Words based in Saxon language||Words based in Romance language|
Additional Word-Choice Guidelines
- Avoid doublets and triplets (due and payable, cease and desist).
- Define unfamiliar terms.
- Use commonly understood words in ways that align with customary usage and don’t define them.
- Define an unfamiliar word where you use it.
- Unfamiliar words and their definitions should be the exception not the rule.
- If you must have a definition section
- Place it at the end,
- Avoid introducing new or substantive information, and
- Only define words you use in the body matter.
- Use the same word or phrase consistently for a specific thought or object. For example, use “senior citizens”, “the elderly”, or “the aged”, but do not use more than one choice.
- Avoid legal, foreign, and technical jargon.
- When you mean “and”, “or”, or both, rephrase the sentence to avoid using a forward slash.
A sentence structures words into an idea.
- Write short, simple sentences.
- Express only one idea in each sentence.
- Avoid dependent clauses and exceptions.
- Eliminate the reader’s need to diagram a sentence.
- Keep subject, verb, and object close together.
- Place modifiers close to the words they modify.
- Place the main idea before exceptions and conditions.
- Avoid double negatives and exceptions to exceptions.
- Consider whether an “if” statement can be restructured for clarity.
- Avoid if-then by placing the if and the then in separate sentences or in a table.
- Use “suppose” instead of “if” to clarify a sentence.
- Use words with positive meanings over words with negative meanings (unless, fail to, notwithstanding, except, other than, un-, dis-, terminate, void, insufficient, not).
A paragraph structures ideas into a topic.
- Write short, simple paragraphs.
- Lead with a topic sentence and cover only that topic in the paragraph.
- Each paragraph should generally contain fewer than 150 words and rarely more than 250 words.
- Vary paragraph length to make them more interesting.
- The occasional one-sentence paragraph is fine when used for effect or emphasis.
- Use transition words:
- Pointing words like this, that, these, those, and the;
- Words or phrases that echo a previously mentioned idea; or
- Explicit connecting words.
|Adding a new point||also, and, in addition, besides, what is more, similarly, further|
|Giving an example||for instance, for example, for one thing, for another thing|
|Giving a result||so, as a result, thus, therefore, accordingly, then|
|Contrasting||but, however, on the other hand, still, nevertheless, conversely|
|Closing||to summarize, to sum up, to conclude, in conclusion, in short|
|Sequencing||first, second, third, finally|
Principle 4: Use tools to clarify or to avoid confusion
- To improve clarity, use tools including:
- An example to illustrate the context of an idea (avoid e.g. and i.e. abbreviations);
- A list with a lead-in sentence that introduces the list; and
- A tables or chart to make complex material easier to understand.
- A customer may use other tools that improve clarity and readability like
- Layout, and
We limit confusion by approaching certain tools with caution.
- Minimize cross references.
- If the cross reference refers to brief material, repeat the material.
- If the cross reference refers to lengthy material, refer users to the relevant section.
- Whenever a cross reference is necessary, describe the cross reference so a reader can decide whether the referenced information must be read to understand how the text impacts them.
- Provide both annotated and unannotated files.
- In the annotated documents, put citations in endnotes to keep the body matter uncluttered.
- In the unannotated documents, use citations only when necessary for the reader’s understanding. Then put the citation in parentheses at the end of the relevant paragraph.
- Use emphasis sparingly to highlight important concepts.
Federal Plain Language Guidelines (pub’d March 2011, updated May 2011, accessed 8/15/23). https://www.plainlanguage.gov/guidelines/