Plain Language



Is YOUR Message Perfectly Clear?     …   ON JANUARY 16th 2003, 82 seconds after the space shuttle Columbia lifted off, a piece of foam insulation weighing less than a kilogram broke off its fuel tank and hit the left wing. Bosses at America’s space agency, NASA, were largely reassured by a subsequent presentation delivered by the “debris assessment” team. They did not request that a military spy satellite photograph the wing, in orbit, before re-entry. But its thermal protection was, in fact, badly damaged. As it re-entered the atmosphere 13 days later, the shuttle, and its crew of seven, burned up.
In a report eight months later, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board cast considerable blame on the debris-assessment team’s presentation to higher-ups during the shuttle’s flight, prepared using PowerPoint software. Information had been poorly condensed onto 28 slides. On one cluttered slide the words “significant” and “significantly” were used five times with a range of meanings from “detectable in a perhaps irrelevant calibration case study” to “an amount of damage so that everyone dies”, noted Edward Tufte, a consultant to the investigators. It was easy to see how managers could have viewed the slides without grasping the level of danger, the board concluded.


Allan McDonald, Who Refused To Approve Shuttle Challenger Launch, Dead At 83


What Are the Rules of Thumb for Plain Writing?  


  • Make sure your top managers are plain language practitioners.
  •  Provide an overview statement about the content. It’s one sentence that acts as a kind of table of contents.
  • Spend as much time reviewing and editing as you did writing.  Question the need for everything that appears in the document.
  • Use lists of points with bullets.  Use paragraphs only if necessary. 
  • Ruthlessly eliminate jargon and legalese.
  • Eliminate all unnecessary words.
  • Eliminate redundant information.
  • Use defined terms sparingly.
  • Steer clear of “respectively.” 
  • Choose the simplest synonym.
  • Always start by putting your main message up front.  Present the big picture before the details.
  • Put the main idea in the first sentence of a paragraph.
  • Limit each paragraph to one topic.
  • Use single idea sentences.
  • Use short sentences. Your average sentence length should be 20 words or fewer.  Keep the subject, verb, and object close together. 
  • Generally, limit paragraphs to seven lines or fewer.
  • Group related information together. 
  • Use words and phrases that clearly state the actions required.
  • Use the active voice with strong verbs.
    • Active Voice: Tom Clancy wrote The Hunt for Red October.
    • Passive Voice: The Hunt for Red October was written by Tom Clancy.  
  • Positive sentences are shorter and easier to understand than their negative counterparts.
  • Refer to the reader as “you”, unless it sounds accusatory or insulting.
  • Minimize your personality.  Emphasize your Agency by using “we”.
  • “Must” is the clearest way to express an obligation.  It is definite.
  • Put standard provisions first and exceptions last.
  • Limit initials, abbreviations, and acronyms. 
  • Explain technical terms immediately, rather than in a glossary.
  • Divide your document into short sections and use lots of informative headings.  Headings need to make connections for the user and give a synopsis of what information follows.  Questions are better as headings than are nouns or noun phrases.
  • There should be no more than six levels of headings in the document, excluding the document’s title.
  • Place administrative information, such as references to other documents, after the main body of the document.
  • Provide examples, pictures, diagrams, charts, and tables, to explain complex material.
  • Integrate text with graphics.  Do not wrap text around illustrations.
  • Keep the design of any graphic as simple as possible.  Avoid graphics that start at a non-zero baseline.
  • Any graphic should be proportionately correct or drawn to scale.
  • Pie charts can be useful in illustrating parts of a whole, but not when you divide the pie into more than 5 or 6 slices.  Most readers find it difficult to draw accurate comparisons between pie slices or between multiple pie charts because the slices form irregular shapes.
  • Fight the impulse to fill up the entire page with text or graphics.
  • Research shows that the easiest text to read is left justified, with even spacing between words, and a ragged right edge.  The ragged right edge helps people keep their reading position. 
  • Allow at least 2pts of space (leading) between lines of type.
  • Use moderate line lengths of 32 to 64 characters (7 to 14 cm).  Long lines are tiring due to increased eye movements, as are very short lines. 
  •  Do not split (hy-

phenate) words across two lines. 

  • Use plain backgrounds.  Patterns add extra work to the reading task.
  • Familiarity with a font style leads to ease of reading.  Therefore, choose a font style similar to those most commonly seen.
  • The reader’s computer may not display or print new and exotic fonts.  Therefore, choose a font that is commonly available on computers, such as Verdana.
  • Computer monitors cannot clearly display the fine details of serif fonts.  Serifs are the little end details of fonts. Serifs accentuate letter differences in print materials.  Sans serif fonts lack these details.  Therefore, use sans serif fonts for documents to be read on a monitor, and serif fonts for documents to be printed for reading.
  • Choose a font style that maximizes the differences between letter shapes and heights, and the spaces within and between them, such as Goudy Old Style.  (Popular since 1915, for a good reason.)  THEREFORE, AVOID USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
  • Italics make reading more difficult.  So does underlining.  Emphasize words with bold text.  Emphasize only those words, phrases, and sentences that are important.
  • Vision difficulties in reading may be compensated for by a larger text size.  Therefore, select a font size that can be easily read at arm’s length.  


Where Did These Rules Come From?


The following notes are taken primarily from All About Readability, by Cheryl Stephens, as posted on the PLAIN Resources page.  Any errors or omissions are mine. 

A Literacy at Work Study published by the Northeast Institute in 2001 found that business losses attributed to basic skill deficiencies run into billions of dollars a year because of low productivity, errors and accidents attributed to functional illiteracy.  
You can check the readability level of a passage using the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level built into the newer versions of Microsoft® Word.  You cannot improve the readability of a passage simply by shortening words and sentences.  You also have to attend to the tone, organization, coherence, and design.
  • Use language that is simple, direct, economic and familiar.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Teach scientific facts and methods rather than science vocabulary. 

Readability formulas are usually based on one semantic factor (the difficulty of words) and one syntactic factor (the difficulty of sentences).  Some programs treat a period, colon, or semi-colon as the sign of the end of a “sentence”.  This is in keeping with some research which concludes that the sentence is not the unit for measure.  Rather the “sousphrase” which we might consider to be a clause represents the unit of thought for measure because it is the cognitive decoding unit.

Most grammar software programmes provide more than one readability measure as well as comparisons to well-known writing. In addition to word, sentence and paragraph statistics, Grammatik IV gives the Flesch Readability Scale, Gunning’s Fog Index in years of education, and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level.  In addition to a qualitative assessment of the writing, Stylewriter, a plain-English editorial program, provides word and sentence statistics with an index percentage of the passive verbs used as well as a count of words in various categories: complex, jargon, abstract, legal, tautologies and so on.

Cloze procedure consists of deleting words in a text and asking the reader to fill in the appropriate or a similar word.  Usually every fifth word is deleted. Cloze is thought to offer a better index of comprehensibility than the statistical formulas.  The ability to identify the missing word or to insert a satisfactory substitute for the original word indicates that the reader comprehends the content of the text.

Researchers have been critical of using readability tests on readers of an additional language.  They point out that these tests cannot take into account that we mentally process our first language differently than we do additional languages we have acquired. Therefore a reader does not approach the text with the same or similar intuition for the language existing among native users. 

If you like to work with guidelines in checklists, use the Document Design Centre’s Guidelines, the CBA/CBA Guidelines, the CLIC Red Alert Editing System or Fry’s Writeability Checklist.