Using Plain Language

… a core concept in Communication Skills and Atlas 109

PlainLanguageConcept description

Using plain language in written communication helps convey information easily and unambiguously.

As explained in The Canadian Style guide (reference below) plain language should not be confused with an oversimplified, condescending style. Rather, by choosing straightforward vocabulary and sentence structures and by organizing and presenting material clearly and logically, the writer can save the reader time and effort and ensure that the message will be clearly understood.

In recent years many governments have developed policies to encourage civil servants to use plain language in creating public documents dealing with regulations and services. Using plain language also helps communicate with and between government officials.

Susan Doyle (reference below) identifies a number of general features distinguish plain language documents from traditional styles of government writing.

  • They are organized for easy reading.
  • They use words effectively.
  • They are built of clear, simple sentences and paragraphs.
  • They are designed for visual appeal.

In other words, plain language deals with more than words and also includes organization, document design, and sentence and paragraph style. All of these features have to be considered when writing or revising a document in plain language.

Doyle’s five common sentence problems

Susan Doyle identifies five common problems that produce complex, dense sentences that are difficult for most readers to understand easily.

  1. Noun Stacks. Piling up nouns (and their modifiers) in a phrase is sure to get in the way of your message. Long strings of nouns and adjectives increase the density of information you’re conveying and force the reader to try to figure out which words are modifying which. For example: His task is regional database systems troubleshooting handbook preparation. To revise a “noun stack,” unpack or unstack the nouns into clauses and phrases. For example: He is preparing a handbook for troubleshooting problems with regional database systems.
  2. Weak passive-voice sentences. One of the all-time worst offenders for creating unclear, wordy, indirect government writing is the passive-voice construction. The main problem with the passive voice is that the doer of the action in a sentence is moved out of the subject position, sometimes to the end of the sentence and sometimes right out of the picture all together. For example, the sentence The committee recommends option 1 is in the active voice. The doer, the committee , is also the subject of the sentence. In the passive voice, the sentence becomes either Option 1 is recommended by the committee or more likely Option 1 is recommended. In the latter version, there is now no doer of the action at all, and the subject is the receiver of the action.
  3. Subject-verb mismatches. In dense, highly technical writing, it’s easy to lose track of the real subject and pick a verb that just does not make sense. For example: The causes of the disappearance of early electric automobiles were devastating to the future of energy conservation in Canada. Here the causes, and not the disappearance, is the actual subject. Clearly it wasn’t the causes that were devastating to the future of energy conservation. The sentence needs to be rewritten as: The disappearance of early electric automobiles was devastating to the future of energy conservation in Canada.
  4. Sentence-length problems. When you are writing about a complex topic, it is easy to construct long sentences that become hard to read. It’s pointless to set a limit on sentence length – everything depends on the way the sentence is constructed. However, very long sentences, and very complicated sentences, often need to be broken up. On the other hand, remember that while an occasional short sentence can be very effective, lots of them can cause writing to be choppy and hard to follow.
  5. Misplacing the main idea. Long openers – dependent clauses or adverbial phrases that come before the main clause in a sentence – force the reader to hold a lot of information before finding out what it refers to. For example, the following sentence doesn’t make sense until the final word. In the meantime, the reader has to hold onto all the preceding details. Because of its greater cost-effectiveness, and on the basis of other criteria developed by the testing team, the storage-pumping method is recommended. The more readable version puts the most important news first: We recommend the storage pumping method because of its greater cost-effectiveness and on the basis of other criteria developed by the testing team. As much as possible, place a sentence’s main idea – its topic – first. The topic makes the rest of the sentence easier to follow. Once readers know the topic, they can grasp any complexities that follow.

Sources and resources

Government of Canada Translation Bureau, Plain Language, Chapter 13 of The Canadian Style, at, accessed 10 April 2016.

Susan Doyle (2013), Plain Language – Writing for Readability, Engl302 Writing for Government, at, accessed 10 April 2016.

Government of the United States of America (2011), Federal Plain Language Guidelines, website at and 118 page pdf document at, accessed 10 April 2016.

Mark Nichol, 20 Strategies for Writing in Plain Language, Daily Writing Tips, at, accessed 10 April 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Writing to Persuade (core topic) in Communication Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 10 April 2016.

Image: Plain Language Clear and Simple, book cover on at, accessed, 10 April 2016.