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Plain Language: Writing for Readability


Why Plain Language Matters

Which of the following sentences would you rather read:

As necessitated by unexpected blue box recycling expenditure increases, combined with municipal road-infrastructure improvement expenditures resulting from repairs necessary to meet prior mandated infrastructure maintenance levels, property taxes payable will be increased for the coming fiscal year.

or

We are increasing property taxes in order to cover the increased costs of blue box recycling and the much needed repairs to several local roads.

You'll recognize the first example as the kind of writing that many people associate with government and other bureaucracies–so much so, in fact, that it is sometimes called "bureaucratese".

This kind of complicated, long-winded writing has a long tradition in government. However, over the past few decades a new approach to writing, particularly for the public, has slowly gained ground. Today, governments are at the forefront of plain language communication with the public. Most publications meant to reach a broad audience are carefully written and edited so their message is clear and readable. Now we consider clear communication a standard part of government accountability. Governments are expected to be transparent, to report to the public and to communicate information in a way that the average reader can understand.

However, a great deal of writing that goes on within government—between offices and between employees—still looks like the traditional complicated, jargon-filled, impenetrable writing of the past. The result causes frustration, wastes time, causes errors, burdens readers, and is highly inefficient. Clearly, communication at all levels and for all purposes would be more effective if everyone writing for government applied the principles of plain language.

What is plain language? In spite of its name, plain language is not a way of writing that uses short, simple words. It is an approach to writing that puts the needs of the reader first—what is sometimes called a "reader-centred" approach. When you take a plain language approach, you are basically aiming to write and design your document so that your readers will understand what you want them to know and will get the message the first time they read it. In the words of the Plain Language Institute, it is "writing and design that successfully communicates a message to a specific audience."

Within government there is a pressing need for writers to do a better job of getting their ideas across. Whatever you write as a government employee— a memo, a briefing note, a report, a policy document, a proposal—you will have a reader. And that reader needs to get the information from your document as efficiently as possible. Texts that leave people scratching their heads or, worse, tearing their hair out waste time, cause misunderstandings, slow down work flow, delay decisions and more.

The Characteristics of Plain Language Documents

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.

From this list you can see that plain language is not simply about words. It's equally about organization, document design, and sentence and paragraph style. All of these features have to be considered when you are writing or revising a document in plain language.

Some Common Sentence Problems

The Plain Train site describes plain language as a combination of clear writing, effective organization and appealing presentation. Combined, these are the key features in effectively conveying information.

Still, effective organization and appealing presentation often fail to compensate for complex, dense sentences. The following sentence problems tend to cause difficulty for readers and deserve special attention.

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, the example above might become He is preparing a handbook for troubleshooting problems with regional database systems (and many other possibilities).

The problem with noun stacks is that it is often difficult to unravel the writer's precise meaning. To revise a noun stack:

  • Ask yourself what you think the sentence means; try to put it into spoken language (we rarely create noun stacks when we speak -- they are an almost strictly written language phenomenon).
  • Try to find a "real" subject —someone or something that can actually do whatever the predicate has it doing.
  • Look for a "real" verb; the verb you need will often appear in the form of a nominalization (in this case, preparation). Nominalizations are nouns that started life as verbs, and often (but not always) end in -ion or -ment (e.g., participation, submission, creation, acknowledgement, adjustment, judgement ). Nominalizations are abstract in nature; the more of them you use in your writing, the more abstract and dense your prose will be.
  • Simplify the language and eliminate any redundant words.
  • Check to make sure the sentence sounds like something someone might say and that it captures the meaning of the original.

Two points to keep in mind when you revise noun stacks:

  • The revised version often ends up being longer than the original because you are adding all the little words that show the relations between words in the sentence (the revised sample above has three additional words)
  • If you are revising the work of another writer, you often have to guess at the most likely meaning. Noun stacks, because they are so condensed, can be rewritten in several ways, and only the original writer will know which revision is correct.

Try to rewrite the following examples into clear, simple sentences. (Note: There is no single right answer; many versions are possible.)

  1. Position acquisition requirements are any combination of university graduation and years of increasingly responsible management experience .
  2. Cerebral-anoxia-associated neonatal period birth injuries can lead to epileptic convulsions.
  3. Regional ozone emission inventory development is complicated by the fact that ozone is not a direct, human-activity-based emission, but instead an "ozone precursor" reaction by-product.

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.

This effect is often cited as the reason the passive voice is so popular among people who work for government: it allows writers to say that something happened, but not who was responsible for it.

Consider these examples of typical passive voice constructions:

  • New registration fees were announced.
  • Funding for several programs was cancelled this week.
  • Employees were notified of the policy.

In each of these examples, the receiver of the action is also the subject of the sentence. The doer, or agent, of the action (whoever announced the new fees, cut the funding, notified employees of the policy) is unstated.

Try rewriting the following passive-voice sentences into active voice (and make any other revisions necessary):

  1. Issues were identified from a review of survey results.
  2. Recently, it was determined that the purchase of a new computer was needed.
  3. However, support for the initiative is being lost, as is shown in the graph in Figure 2.

Keep in mind that the passive voice is not incorrect. In many cases, the passive is the voice you want. For example, it is a good writing technique when the doer doesn't matter, when you don't want to be bothered with an obvious or too-often-repeated subject, or when you need to rearrange words in a sentence for emphasis.

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.

Try revising the following sentences to correct the mismatch between subject and verb.

  1. A communicable disease is a person who has been infected by a virus or bacteria.
  2. Presently, electric vehicles are experimenting with two types of energy sources.
  3. The consultations involved in the development of new methods of nuclear-waste treatment were rejected by environmentalists because of the danger they posed to the health of citizens.

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.

Try rewriting the following sentences into several shorter, more manageable sentences.

  1. Digoxin or Lanoxin is a positive inotropic drug that can be given intravenously to increase heart contractions and lower heart rate, but in cases of renal failure and debilitating disease the dosages may be required to be lowered as the patient may become hypokalemic, risking Digoxin toxicity that is evidenced by rhythm irregularities.
  2. Recombinant alpha interferon, which activates genes that produce proteins, also modulates the immune response, which can contribute to the antiviral effect, and inhibits some cancer cell growth.
  3. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA will promulgate new standards for the treatment of industrial wastewater prior to its discharge into sewers leading to publicly owned treatment plants, with pretreatment standards for types of industrial sources being discretionary, depending on local conditions, instead of imposing nationally uniform standards now required under the Act.

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.

Revise the following sentences so that the main idea appears first (and then simplify as needed):

  1. After investigating several possibilities for reducing the fee differential between domestic and international students and conducting three studies, with recommendations, examining the effect of higher fees on the enrolment of international students, the university has decided to maintain the current fee structure for another year.
  2. As September approaches, bringing lower temperatures, a return to seasonal relative humidity levels and a dramatic reduction in the number of long-stay campers, the forest fire hazard should decline.
  3. Even though a number of possibilities may make the plan unworkable in the future, in spite of the dedicated effort of those who took part in developing the plan, it is our hope that the committee will accept our recommendations.

Send questions or comments to sdoyle@uvic.ca. © Susan Doyle, 2013