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Thought Leadership, Best Practices, Insights and Examples


What the Heck is Plain Language?

by Tom Humbarger
Post Date:11/02/2015

Can your citizens find what they want on your website? And once they find it, do they understand what you are trying to communicate? Maybe need to take a look at applying Plain Language techniques to all of your web communications. Plain language is a movement that started by simplifying unintelligible legal documents, and has now been embraced by governments and businesses around the world.


What is Plain Language?

Plain Language is any communication that your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Communication needs to be accurate and precise, but it is even more important for it to be clear and reader-friendly.

Writing in plain language isn’t easy, but the effort pays off in positive results for website visitors. It can be challenging to write in Plain Language because:

  • What is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others
  • There is not a single technique to define or test for plain language
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Did you know that Plain Language is a law?

Plain Language is so critical to the operations of the federal government that it was incorporated into a law, the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which was signed by President Obama on October 13, 2010. The purpose behind the law was to establish a “system of transparency, public participation and collaboration” as noted in the President’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.

The Plain Language Act requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” The idea behind the law is “to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly.” Both written and electronic documents are covered by the Plain Language Act. While this law only applies to federal agencies, the intent of the law is definitely applicable to all types of government agencies, and encourages best practices for writing in a clear, concise and well-organized manner.

Plain Language Has Historical Roots

Plain language has been on the minds of authors for a long time. Consider these historical quotes about the importance of writing clearly from the Plain Language website:

Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in a few words. 

The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words. 

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. 
Leonardo da Vinci

Plain Language and Content Strategy

Plain Language and Content Strategy are cousins in the communication world. While Content Strategy has its roots in the marketing world and takes a high level approach to the strategy, planning and structure of communications, both encourage content authors to use common sense and a practical approach to writing in a clear manner. These techniques includes identifying your audience, organizing your thoughts, eliminating unnecessary content, putting the most important information at the beginning, using lots of useful headings and writing short sections.

One good test to see if your content is clear is to see if your users can:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

Plain Language Checklist for the Web

If you are looking for a quick checklist, the National Archives offers this top 10 list for using Plain Language:

  1. Write for your reader, not yourself. 
  2. Use pronouns when you can. 
  3. State your major point(s) first before going into details.
  4. Stick to your topic. 
  5. Limit each paragraph to one idea and keep it short.
  6. Write in active voice. Use the passive voice only in rare cases. 
  7. Use short sentences as much as possible.
  8. Use everyday words. If you must use technical terms, explain them on the first reference.
  9. Omit unneeded words. 
  10. Keep the subject and verb close together. 
  11. Use headings, lists, and tables to make reading easier.
  12. Proofread your work, and have a colleague proof it as well.

Use the Grandma Test for Plain Language

 In this TEDx video, Plain Language expert Sandra Fischer suggests that you think about your grandmother to help you craft clear and straightforward language:


You start with what's most important. Grandma is busy. She's not going to read three full pages just to get to the main idea.

  • Use short sentences because Grandma, like any of us, if the sentences are too long, by the >time she gets to the end, she won't remember the beginning.
  • Use simple words—those that grandma already knows.

Where can I find out more about Plain Language?

Here are some more resources for you to check out:

At Vision, we specialize in helping agencies research and implement user-focused improvements, and are always happy to discuss your particular needs. Request a free consultation now.


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