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Plain Language: Making Your Message Intelligible

Heather Matsune
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 3, 2007, page 12)

Our previous article dealt with readability—setting up the language and design of your document as a framework on which to build a clear message. With that framework in place, you can start filling in the content. If you aren’t careful, though, you may end up saying something you don’t mean. Or, rather, your readers may not interpret your message the way you intended. Avoiding that kind of ambiguity is not always easy: it takes planning and discipline to select relevant information, give it an appropriate structure and ensure the coherence of the whole. And that’s what gives your message meaning and makes it intelligible.

RELEVANCE

Consider your e-mail inbox: how likely would you be to open an e-mail with the subject line "Internal policy no. 102"? You might ignore it for a while, file it away or even delete it without reading it. But you wouldn’t hesitate to read that e-mail if you knew it was going to tell you what to do if you saw an unauthorized person in your office building. A more effective subject line might have been "Report trespassers in your building." As a reader, you would see right away that the information in that e-mail is relevant to you. As a writer, you need to put in the effort to make your documents just as relevant to all your readers.

The information in your documents must be complete and concise. While you need to include all the necessary information, you also have to limit yourself to only the necessary information. Your message will be more easily understood if it provides the essentials with no filler. The relevance of your information also depends on its being thoroughly researched and factually correct, as well as adapted to your target readers. Bear in mind that you may need to update your documents occasionally to keep them complete and accurate.

STRUCTURE

Once you’re sure of your information, you can break it down and rearrange it until you find the most appropriate structure. As you work at this, focus on the message you want to convey, and try to organize your information to make that point obvious. Drawing up an outline before you start writing can keep you on track and will help you avoid leaving something out or being repetitive.

Organizing your information

Bring together all the information related to one idea, and then arrange that information in a logical order. If you do this for each of your main ideas, you can then organize the larger structure of your document. There are different ways to arrange those main ideas, including the following:

  • moving from general to specific ideas (or vice versa)
  • contrasting positive with negative elements
  • presenting the most important ideas first followed by the less important ones
  • progressing in chronological order

Providing reference points

Write an introduction for your document that sets out the main ideas in the order in which they will be developed. Then use headings to show precisely where those main ideas are addressed, as well as subheadings to give structure to those ideas. If your reference points are simple, concise and explicit, your readers will know what to expect. And if the words you pick for the headings and subheadings also appear in the body of the text, you will eliminate some guesswork for your readers.

Try to choose the right structure for the different types of information you want to convey. Consider using step-by-step instructions, bulleted lists, tables and graphics, where appropriate. For long documents, include a table of contents. Anything you can do to make the reading task easier will make the message more intelligible.

COHERENCE

Coherence is fundamental to the intelligibility of a document: it helps you develop your ideas clearly by connecting them from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. To tie the whole document together like this, you must make sure it flows naturally and is unambiguous.

Creating a flow

Structure and ideas guide readers visually and logically through a coherent document. Creating that flow helps you achieve the goal of your communication (to inform, convince, raise awareness, etc.), which is to say that it helps get the point of your document across.

Using connecting words and phrases (because, however, in addition, etc.) is one way to reinforce the flow of your document. They are vital to good writing because they link parts of sentences, complete sentences or even whole paragraphs. Most of the time it is easier to understand a long sentence that contains a connector than two short sentences with no connector. Consider the following example:

  • Claire is pregnant. She was fired.
  • Claire was fired because she is pregnant.

That said, there is such a thing as too many connectors: applied too liberally, they can weigh down your document and inhibit its coherence. In some cases, you may need to use a few sentences to make the transition from one idea to the next.

Eliminating ambiguity

Ambiguity makes your documents less coherent. To eliminate ambiguity, write so that each of your ideas can be interpreted in only one way.

When your meaning cannot be understood from context alone, there are a number of ways to eliminate the ambiguity:

Put your phrases in the right order.

Instead of writing

  • There was an accident while the students were writing an exam on the lawn.

Write

  • While the students were writing an exam, there was an accident on the lawn.

Make sure that each pronoun refers to only one antecedent.

In the following example, the personal pronoun "he" could refer to the ambassador or the minister:

  • The ambassador is going to the ceremony to meet the minister. He has to return to his office at 9 o’clock.

To clear up that ambiguity, you could have written

  • The ambassador is going to the ceremony to meet the minister, who has to return to his office at 9 o’clock.

    or

  • The ambassador is going to the ceremony to meet the minister. The ambassador has to return to his office at 9 o’clock.

Don’t let the object(s) in a sentence create ambiguity.

It is unclear whether this example refers to the rules set out by the committee or the rules that the committee must follow:

  • Are you familiar with the committee’s rules?

Depending on which rules are in question, you could have written

  • Are you familiar with the rules set by the committee?

    or

  • Are you familiar with the rules the committee must follow?

Make implied words explicit.

Instead of writing

  • I congratulated Raymond, but not Daniel.

    Write

  • I congratulated Raymond, but I did not congratulate Daniel.

    or

  • I congratulated Raymond, but Daniel did not.

Unclear grammatical structure and implied words aren’t the only causes of ambiguity. Here are a few more things you can do to make reading your documents easier:

Avoid using references that your readers won’t understand.

  • Menu items often seem more appealing in the language of Molière.

Reading the expression la langue de Molière in a French document would make perfect sense to francophone readers. But the concept may not translate as well into an English document for anglophone or allophone readers. In this case, it would be more straightforward, and less likely to cause confusion, to say "French" instead of "the language of Molière."

Avoid using expressions that can evoke comical imagery or otherwise lead to confusion.

Instead of writing

  • City officials gave the marathoners the runaround.

    Write

  • City officials misinformed the marathoners.

Intelligibility is a fairly broad topic, and we have only touched on the basics as they apply to plain language. Nonetheless, if you work at making your writing relevant, structured and coherent, you will more clearly communicate your ideas and thereby improve the intelligibility of your documents.