In other words’ (unofficial) guide to writing in plain language

The long walk to plainness: In a way, each column I have written for The Media Online since March has brought me a step closer to writing this plain language guide.  I reinvented myself as a plain language expert, called my business In other words, and began blogging about other people’s writing errors. And so I took on the responsibility of explaining to my readers (and to those whose writing I have publicly criticised) what exactly I mean by the term plain language.

It has taken me more than six months to write this guide. Or, more correctly, I took six months to gather the courage to start writing this guide. After all, having spent six months ranting about other people’s inappropriate use of language that is anything but plain, I am a soft target for criticism about my own writing. But, face the music I must.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. — Leonardo da Vinci

Why plain language?

SA Law  obliges those needing to communicate with consumers to do so in plain language. This legal imperative is relevant to all those who communicate with their customers in writing.

But plain language is more than just one of the requirements you can tick off in ensuring your business complies with all of its legal obligations. It is good practice to communicate in plain language whether or not one of the statutory provisions compels you to do so.

If you are writing fiction, an opinion column or other words that readers may choose to read, personal expression will dictate your writing style.  But if you are writing words that customers, colleagues or members of the public need to read, always try write in plain language. If you are using words for marketing or advertising, bear in mind that the simpler your message, the better your chance of reaching your target audience.

When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men’s minds take in quickly what you say,

learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every unnecessary word only pours over the side of

a brimming mind.  ­— Cicero

At the risk of stating the obvious, you should write in plain language because you will get your message across more quickly and in a way that more people can understand more easily. You will also save time because you won’t need to explain yourself to people who don’t get what you have written.  Initially it may take you longer to express yourself clearly but once you have learned the skill you will be more efficient, which will increase both your client base and your profitability.

Everyone is under time pressure today so no one should have to work to understand the information they need.  — Cheryl Stephens

How I’ve arranged the guide

For obvious reasons I have tried to make this guide easy to understand and simple to use. (* See footnote)

So, there are going to be bits in here that are nothing new to some of you. Bear with me, I am writing for a wide audience and hope that this will become a reference resource. I want it to be useful to both mother-tongue and second-language English writers.

In an earlier column I touched on the four broad elements or pillars of Plain Language, being:

  • the actual words used;
  • the arrangement or format of the writing;
  • the appropriateness to the intended audience; and
  • the context of the writing.

This guide focuses mainly on the first aspect but does touch on all of the others.

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. — George Orwell

The disclaimer

Some of the tips I’ve included cover grammatical issues that go beyond conventional ideas of what plain language encompasses. I find it difficult to draw the line between the two as good grammar forms the basis of clear writing. I’ve also included extra grammatical information as background if a plain language principle is easier to understand if put in grammatical context.

This guide is simply that – a guide. These are the principles I try to stick to when writing and editing or commenting on other people’s writing. This is not an academic paper and I am not a grammarian or a linguist by training. I am sharing with you the (largely common sense) writing rules I try to follow. (**)

Oh, and I’ve peppered this guide with quotations from well-known people so that you don’t think I am making this all up.

Grammar 101 (and maybe a bit of Grammar Intensive too)

Language begins with words. We arrange words in groups and put them in order to convey meaning.

The different categories of words, which are the building blocks of language, are sometimes called parts of speech. I’ve set out in the table below what I regard as the main parts of speech, at least for the purposes of this guide.


part of speech Job description examples
verb tells us what the doer is doing or what state they are in Betty hums tunes.
noun names things, people or places Betty hums tunes.
adjective describes a noun Betty hums familiar tunes.
adverb describes a verb, adjective or other adverb Betty often hums vaguely familiar tunes.
pronoun replaces a noun She often hums vaguely familiar tunes.
preposition links nouns to other words She often hums vaguely familiar tunes in her room.
conjunction joins words, clauses or sentences She often hums vaguely familiar tunes but she never sings the words.

The words ‘phrase’, ‘clause’ and ‘sentence’ refer to different forms of word groupings. Sentences and clauses both have verbs, while phrases don’t. A simple sentence contains one idea; complex sentences have a number of phrases and clauses.


word grouping Example
simple sentence Betty hums tunes.
phrase in her room
clause which I have seen
complex sentence Betty hums tunes in her room which I have seen.

I’ll start with some general rules and then go into more detail about some of these parts of speech.

General rules

1. The golden rule of plain language is to always use the simplest, shortest word possible. Use the minimum number of words necessary to convey meaning.

This doesn’t mean that you have to write in monosyllables or as if you were talking to a toddler. Profound thoughts can be conveyed in simple terms.

Take “I think therefore I am” as an example. Descartes’ (originally French, then Latin) saying uses common words to convey a thought so profound that three centuries later great minds are still grappling to understand it. I don’t think the concept would be as well known if it had been translated as “I cogitate pursuant to which I exist”.

“To be or not to be” is another striking example.

Some of the most effective marketing campaigns have involved short, simple catchphrases that will forever be linked in our minds to the products they advertise. Think of “it’s not inside, it’s on top” and “let your fingers do the walking”.

The price of clarity, of course, is that the clearer the document the more obvious its substantive deficiencies. For the lazy or dull, this price may be too high. —  Reed Dickerson

There are many professions guilty of overwriting. I have devoted entire columns to my legal colleagues so I’ll give them a break here (but see points 4 and 6 below). To me, human resource departments are among the worst. In HR they never ‘sack’ or ‘fire’ anyone. American companies sometimes even call firing staff ‘a refocusing of the company’s skills-set’. Let’s cut the waffle and say what we mean.

A few common examples:

Use and not
start/ begin commence
try attempt or endeavour
need require
end terminate

(See Plain Language Resources 101 for a link to a useful list of complex words and their simpler synonyms.)

Let your audience be your guide and tailor your writing according to who is going to read it. Of course, there are times when more complex words are needed. In some instances, technical and business jargon is appropriate and, perhaps, even necessary. But use it sparingly and consciously and not when everyday words could convey the same meaning.

2. Closely related to the golden rule is the principle of writing short sentences. Most plain language practitioners advise writing fewer than 20 words per sentence; some even suggest a maximum of 15. This is obviously not always possible, but you should aim for an average of approximately 20 words per sentence in a document.

No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.­­  – Isaac Babel

3. One way to reduce the length of your sentences is to leave out unnecessary words.  This means avoiding verbosity and being economical with your word choice.

I am sorry this is such a long letter but I did not have the time to write a short one. — Mark Twain

We are all guilty of the occasional overwrite. Test yourself by reading one of your sentences and analysing whether each word is essential to the meaning. Obviously, different contexts call for different writing tones and in some cases, such as opinion columns, descriptive and emphatic writing may be appropriate.

The easiest way to reduce the number of words you use is to avoid using groups of words in place of one word. Some common examples of these are:

Use and not
to in order to
and as well as
each each and every
if in the event that
in in the context of

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. – Thomas Jefferson

4. Another simple way to shorten your sentences is to avoid using doublets and triplets. Unfortunately I can’t ignore the lawyers here as they are the biggest culprits. If someone owns something, write it just like that. You don’t give them extra rights by recording that they ‘have all right, title and interest in and to’. And there is no need to ‘make, constitute and appoint’ when simply appointing covers all three.

A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning is like a bad marksman who, instead of aiming a single stone at an object, takes up a handful and throws in hopes he may hit.  — Samuel Johnson

5. If you only make one change in your writing style, make it this one. Avoid meaningless phrases and clichés.

There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one and had better be removed. — Wolcott Gibbs

They make your writing dense and boring.  Expressions like ‘to this day’, ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘going forward’ have, through overuse, lost the significance of their original meaning; they add nothing so rather leave them out.

Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing — Robert Benchley

Other words and phrases should be left out because they are redundant to the context. The words ‘in my opinion’ are unnecessary because if you present anyone’s opinion but your own then you need to give them credit or quote your source.

And, unless you are in court (which may or may not excuse you) there is no place for these words:

with respect they almost always precede a disrespectful statement
in my humble opinion if you truly believe your opinion is humble keep it to yourself

6. Avoid archaisms at all costs. There is no excuse for using words like ‘hereinbefore’ and ‘whereupon’, even if you are a lawyer. (Slightly more controversial is my pet peeve, ‘shall’, which I’ll address next week.)

7. Before working through the various parts of speech in detail, I need to remind you of the importance of punctuation to clear writing.

I am tempted to say that punctuation is to grammar what love is to marriage. But that may be a bad metaphor. Put simply, punctuation is essential to good grammar; it can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Without it it is very difficult to convey your meaning accurately.

Punctuation is also a useful way to break up sentences into manageable chunks. Commas, semi colons, colons, brackets, hyphens and full stops (periods) all give readers a chance to pause and digest pieces of information.

For some light relief, look at The lighter side of grammar and punctuation for some cartoons doing the word-nerd rounds at the moment.

Also, think of the humble apostrophe and the part it plays in telling word pairs apart.

your/you’re This is your right; this is your left.You’re right, that is your left.
its/it’s It’s mine.The company closed its mine.
can’t/cant I can’t see.They cant their heads to see.

8. Of course, while some say the 140-character limit on Twitter is the ultimate test of plain writing, it is not acceptable to use ‘textspeak’ or Twitter abbreviations in any other form of communication.


Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.  — F Scott Fitzgerald.


* – Some people encouraged me to refer to this column as an idiot’s guide to plain language. Even if this wouldn’t expose me to a costly intellectual property lawsuit, I have far too much respect for my readers. But the very idea got me thinking along a plain language tangent. In the interests of research, I googled “Idiot’s Guide” and was directed to the relevant website. Take a look at the terms and conditions of use on the website. That should suffice as an example of how to write in unclear language. Penguin Group USA Inc. – I expected better from you.

**– I’ve put this guide together from a lifetime of reading, writing and learning. A few teachers who’ve made an impression on my love of words are:

  • Dr Raymond Doubell, my matric English teacher whose lessons were a theatrical adventure. Read my earlier column on Dr D for a taste of his eccentric teaching methods.
  • Prof John Collier, my Cambridge law tutor – a man I adored and feared in equal measures.
  • John Linnegar of Edit and Train – I highly recommend his courses on plain language and good grammar. (Look out for a story on him next week.)

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people. – William Butler Yeats