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13 Plain Language

13.01 Introduction

The purpose of a plain-language approach in written communication is to convey information easily and unambiguously. It should not be confused with an oversimplified, condescending style. Rather, by choosing straightforward vocabulary and sentence structures and by organizing and presenting your material clearly and logically, you can save the reader time and effort and ensure that your message will be clearly understood.

The Government of Canada calls for plain language to be used in its communications with the public:

The obligation to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about government policies, programs and services should be clear, objective and simple, and presented in a manner that is readily understandable. Messages should convey information relevant to public needs, use plain language and be expressed in a clear and consistent style.1

The need to provide relevant information in a clear and simple way also applies to communications within and between departments. Many types of documents are written by public servants for other public servants: memorandums, information on employee benefits, health and safety manuals, work plans, departmental policies, performance appraisals and so on. Use of plain language will help ensure that your message comes across clearly and that readers take appropriate action.


  • Back to the note1 Treasury Board, "Government Communications Policy," Treasury Board Publications on CD-ROM, p. 17.

13.02 Focussing on the reader

The starting point of any writing project should be to identify the intended readership, the purpose of the material and the desired impact. Before you start writing, ask yourself the following questions:

Who are the intended readers?

Are you writing for specialists, young people, all taxpayers, or a group whose first language is not English?

What do the readers need to know?

Do they need the details or just an overview, the historical context and the reasons behind the decision or merely an explanation of the decision’s impact on them? What needs to be emphasized?

How will the readers use the information?

Will they use it to make a decision, to determine whether they are eligible for something, to carry out a procedure? Will they need to read the entire document or concentrate on one or two sections?

Use a personal tone in your writing. Address your readers directly and include examples, where appropriate, to illustrate important points.

For example, write

  • You must be a landed immigrant or permanent resident to apply. To find out how to become a landed immigrant or permanent resident, contact an Immigration Centre (the addresses are given on page 6).


  • It is incumbent upon applicants who do not possess a status of landed immigrant or permanent resident prior to the submission of their application to communicate with the appropriate Immigration Centre in order to take the necessary steps to obtain such a status.

13.03 Text organization

Decide what information is most important to include and structure it in such a way that the document is logically presented and easily understood. Do this by putting yourself in the reader’s place: What is the most important thing you would want to know if you were the reader? What would help you find the information needed?

  • Divide your text into main points and secondary points.
  • Decide on a structure. Is a brief summary of background information required? What are to be the main divisions of your document? How much detail is required? Is a question-and-answer approach appropriate?
  • Put the most important ideas first—both in the document and in each paragraph.
  • At the outset, tell your reader what your document is about and how it is organized. Use a table of contents and an introduction for longer documents.

See Chapter 11 Reports and Minutes for detailed information on the organization of reports.

13.04 Vocabulary

(a) Use simple, familiar words and phrases for clarity. In the list below, the column on the right gives a more straightforward and often shorter way to express the same idea:

Examples Straightforward forms
advance planning planning
After this is accomplished Then
at an early date soon
facilitate help, make possible
five in number five
in the absence of without
It would be appropriate for me
to begin by saying that
owing to the fact that because, since

(b) Choose verbs over verb-noun phrases to make your sentences clear and concise. For example, readers will understand your message more readily if you replace the phrase on the left with the word on the right:

Verb-noun phrases Verbs
carry out an examination of examine
effect an improvement to improve
ensure maintenance of maintain
give consideration to consider
make an enquiry enquire

The following sentence becomes much more transparent if the two verb-noun phrases are replaced with verbs:


  • The recommendation of the committee favoured continuation of the applied research.


  • The committee recommended that the applied research continue.

(c) Concise writing is generally clearer. Cut out unnecessary words to shorten sentences.

For example, write

  • With fewer younger workers entering the job market, unemployment may drop over the next decade.


  • Slower labour force growth may attenuate somewhat the problem of unemployment over the next decade, since there will no longer be a need to absorb large numbers of new workers entering the labour market.

(d) Avoid jargon and unfamiliar acronyms or expressions, especially when writing for the public. Even for internal documents, consider using an alternative expression if some of your readers may not know the specialized term. Expressions such as roll out, stakeholder and re-engineering may be unclear except to a specialized audience and tend to be overused.

Sometimes an unfamiliar term is best omitted altogether. For example, the following sentence contains a Latin phrase—ceteris paribus (meaning "other things being equal")—which will confuse many readers and which adds little if any meaning:

  • From our perspective, Option 2 would seem to offer the most benefits and, ceteris paribus, would be more effective in ensuring the resolution of any problems.

The sentence could be written more clearly and concisely as follows:

  • We feel that Option 2 would be the most effective way of solving any problems.

Administrative jargon and officialese can cloud the message and make it incomprehensible to many readers:


  • The challenges of the position involve ensuring the provision of delivery of the program in the most efficient manner possible in light of an ever-changing client profile which is impacted on by the adjustments to the programs necessitated by changing federal legislation and by the incidence of federal cutbacks in resource allotments.


  • The challenges of the position include delivering the program as efficiently as possible in light of an ever-changing client profile, changes in federal legislation and resource cutbacks.

(e) Explain complicated ideas. Make sure that complex notions or subtle distinctions are clarified. The following sentence requires specialized knowledge on the reader’s part:

  • Holders of locked-in RRSPs, currently limited to purchases of life annuities with those funds, will be allowed to purchase life income funds.

Is it clear to the reader how "locked-in RRSPs" differ from other RRSPs and what the distinction between "life annuities" and "life income funds" is? If not, explain these notions before going on.

(f) Avoid chains of nouns. Nouns can modify other nouns in English, but three or more nouns in a row can obscure the meaning: the reader has to differentiate between the concepts and decide how the nouns are interrelated. Examples of noun chains abound in administrative writing:

  • departmental expenditure increase review
  • investment income deferral advantage
  • post-selection feedback session
  • unemployment insurance premium rate increases

It is easier for the reader to understand the message if some of the nouns are linked by prepositions such as of, for, to and in. The first example could be reformulated as "a review of increases in departmental expenditures." Although the revised version uses more words, it is clearer and simpler to read.

13.05 Sentences

Sentences are the basic building blocks of any written material and must be designed to convey the message effectively. To achieve this objective, keep them relatively short, avoid verbiage, link your ideas logically and use the active voice. The same principles apply to paragraphs.

Keep sentences concise. Limit your sentences to one idea and avoid information overload. A sentence such as the one that follows is difficult to understand on first reading because it contains too much information:

  • The amendment provides for pension benefits to be fully funded as they are earned by employees and for the basic pension accounts to be combined with the portion of the Supplementary Retirement Benefits Account that relates to each plan so that all future benefits, including all indexing payments, can be charged to the appropriate accounts.

The points could be more effectively expressed in two or three sentences:

  • Under the amended policy, employees’ pension benefits will be fully funded as they are earned. Moreover, the basic pension account for each plan will absorb the portion of the Supplementary Retirement Benefits Account that applies to that plan. In this way, all future benefits, including indexing payments, can be charged to the appropriate accounts.

In the sentence

  • First of all, in a general sense, what is interesting is that in addition to the initial objective which was to restart the learning process, it was found that this literacy training would enable individuals, who are totally inhibited, to once again discover at least a minimum of self-confidence.

almost all of the first line is superfluous and there are no fewer than four subordinate clauses. Eliminate the filler material and recast the sentence to highlight the main idea:

  • The literacy training met the initial objective of restarting the learning process. It also helped participants, who were very inhibited, to begin acquiring self-confidence.

Paragraphs, too, should be limited to one point, or to a series of related points if the information is not complicated.

Make your point clearly. Avoid empty introductory phrases and padding that obscure the meaning of a sentence. These include expressions such as "I would like to begin by indicating clearly to you that . . ." and "If this step, which may be necessary in some but not all cases, is deemed appropriate . . . ."

Say what you need to say concisely and clearly. Link ideas within sentences and paragraphs by giving your readers "signposts." Cohesion can be achieved in various ways, including the use of linking words (moreover, however and so on) and references to the topic at hand ("The new policy on . . . ," "This policy," "It").

Use the active voice. While the passive voice is useful in moderation and is common in administrative writing, it tends to be wordy and impersonal. Give preference to the active voice, in which the subject conveys the action and is generally near the beginning of the sentence, making it easier for the reader to understand the message:


  • It is requested that recommendations be submitted concerning ways and means whereby costs arising out of the use of the facsimile might conceivably be shared by both directorates.


  • Please recommend ways in which the two directorates could share the cost of the fax machine.

Convey your message positively. Where possible, use positive words to make your point. For example, write

  • Enter the information in one file only.


  • Enter the information in no more than one file.

Readers may miss or misinterpret short negatives such as no, not, none and never and negative words beginning with in-, non- and un-, particularly if several of them occur in the same paragraph. Such misreadings could have a serious effect on users’ decisions and actions. So if you cannot reword positively, consider highlighting the negative by using boldface or italics.

13.06 Layout and design

Readers, especially members of the public, are more likely to read and use documents that are designed with plain language principles in mind. You can make your document more appealing visually and easier to read by removing obstacles to communication in various ways:

Choose appropriate type. Serif typefaces (such as Times Roman and Palatino), which have small lines at the ends of the letter strokes, are easier to read because they direct the reader’s eye from letter to letter. Serif faces are therefore recommended for text, while sans-serif typefaces, such as Helvetica, provide contrast when used in headings.

The size of the type should generally be at least 10 points. Twelve-point type or larger may be required for readers with visual impairments.

Use open space. Provide extra white space around headings, lists, boxes and other visual elements to draw attention to the information in them.

Leave one extra line space between paragraphs if you are using the block format (see 10.02 Block style). If using the indent style (see 10.03 Indent style), do not leave an extra line space, except in correspondence.

Break information down into lists, introduced by bullets or numbers. This opens up the document and guides your readers.

Words in lower case have distinctive shapes that are easy to recognize. Entire lines of capitalized text are difficult to read because the letters are all the same size. Similarly, left-justified text, with a ragged right edge, is more readable. In text with a justified right margin, the spacing between letters and words can be irregular and difficult to control, and the eye becomes tired from having to adjust constantly.

Create contrast. Use headings, subheadings and visual elements to produce contrast and lead your readers through the document. Colour and varied styles and sizes of type can also help create contrast. However, excessive use of lines, colours and visuals may distract readers’ attention from your message.

13.07 Testing

It is important to test and revise a document before it is distributed or published.

Techniques for revision and proofreading are outlined in Chapter 16 Revision and Proofreading. However, it is also a good idea to check the readability and transparency of your document before it is released for distribution. A trial run with a potential reader or colleague who has knowledge of the target readership could be a useful test. Surveys, focus groups or field tests would provide an even more thorough indication as to whether your document will get the message across simply and clearly to the intended readership.