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Gary B. Larson


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Plain English

Your Reader and Purpose

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Clear, Simple Sentences

Suitable Words

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Using suitable words

Familiar words | Useless words | Redundancy | Jargon | Technical words | Noun phrases | Abbreviations | Capitalization | Inclusiveness

Strive to be human in your writing. A formal, bureaucratic tone too often creates distance between you (or your organization) and your readers.

Plain-language writing uses the clearest words possible to describe actions, objects and people. That often means choosing a two-syllable word over a three-syllable one, an old familiar term instead of the latest bureaucratic expression and sometimes, several clearer words instead of one complicated word.

Use words your readers are likely to understand. Base your choice of words on what will be clearer for your reader. To help you draft easy-to-understand documents, below are some guidelines on your choice of words. Also see the Guide to concise writing for concise alternatives to overstated, pompous words; wordy, bureaucratic phrases; and redundant phrases.

  • Instead of:
    Subsequent to the passage of the subject ordinance, it is incumbent upon you to advise your department to comply with it.
  • Use:
    After the law passes, you must tell your staff to follow it.

Use simple, everyday, familiar words

Choose common English words with clear meanings: explain a problem instead of address a problem; invisible, open or obvious instead of transparent. Especially if your document may have many readers with limited English proficiency or be translated for them, choose words with just one or a few clear meanings. Also avoid puns and words with double meanings: voters instead of grassroots; available instead of free (if that's what you mean).

Here are other examples of simple, precise words and phrases you might substitute:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

amongst

among

attain

arrive at, gain, get, grasp, meet, reach, win

consequently

so, thus

dialogue (as a verb)

meet, talk

disseminate

communicate, deliver, distribute, give, scatter, send, send out, share, spread

endeavor (as a verb)

carry out, strive, take on, try

expedite

hasten, help along, hurry, rush, send, speed up

hereinafter

after this, from now on, in the rest of this document, later

heretofore

before, before this, earlier, until now

impact (as a verb)

change, have an effect, increase, influence, risk, stimulate

implement (as a verb)

carry out, do, finish, fulfill, impose, put into effect, set up, start

inordinately

excessively, unduly, unusually

institute (as a verb)

begin, create, found, set up, start

obtain

get, buy, earn, exist, gain, hold, stand

optimum

best, greatest, ideal, most, peak

per annum [Latin]

annually, a year, each year, yearly

per capita [Latin]

a person, each, for each person, per person

per diem [Latin]

a day, daily

peruse

examine, inspect, read carefully or thoroughly, study

prioritize

list, order, rank, set priorities

reference (as a verb)

mentioning, refer

shall

will or must

strategize

plan

support

confirm, imply, prove, show, suggest, verify; or aid, help; or encourage, mandate

terminate

close, end, exit, finish, limit, stop, wind up

therein

in it, in that matter, there

utilize

make use of, use

wherein

in what, in which, where

For more shorter, simpler alternatives to overstated, bureaucratic and pompous words.

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Cut out unnecessary, useless words

Use only as many words as you need. Use fewer structural words with little meaning: because or since instead of due to the fact that; if instead of in the event that. Tighten verbose (or wordy) text by replacing too complex statements with shorter terms or single words: geography, not the field of geography; tends to, not have a tendency to.

Here is a sample list of some alternative words for common, wordy expressions:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

adequate number of

acceptable, enough, satisfactory

a certain number of

some

a great many

many

apart from

besides, in addition

at the present time

now

be advised that

note that, please note that

by means of

by, using, with

despite the fact that

although, even though, though

during the time

during, when, while

excessive number of

too many

for the purpose of

for, of, to

from time to time

at times, occasionally, sometimes

if this is the case

if so

if this is not the case

if no

in lieu of

for, in place of, instead of

in many cases

many, often

in the event of

if, when [not if and when]

it is probable that

probably

it would appear that

clearly, plainly, obviously, seemingly

a majority of

most, most of

once in a while

sometimes

on the part of

among, by, for, of

prior to

ahead of, before

pursuant to

by, under

subsequent to

after, following, later, next, then

this office

I, me. us, we

under the provisions of

by, under

until such time

until

with reference to, with regard to

about, for as for, on

For more simpler, concise alternatives to wordy, bureaucratic phrases

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Cut redundant ideas, words and phrases

Avoid using wordy phrases and multiple words with similar meanings or unhelpful redundancies. For example, try protrude, not protrude out; either if or when, not if and when; result, not end result; square, not square in shape; experience, not past experience; demolished, not totally demolished; visible, not visible to the eye; complete or finished, not completely finished; four hours, not four hours of time; 5 feet high, not 5 feet in height.

Later, go through your document and ask yourself if you're repeating information needlessly. If so, combine your thoughts or remove the matching ideas.

Here is a sample list of alternative words for some redundant phrases:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

added bonus

bonus

advance notice

notice

at this juncture, at this point in time

now, this week, today

city of Renton

Renton [but City of Renton to refer to the government]

close proximity

close, near

current status

status

during the hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

10 feet in length

10 feet, 10 feet long

filled to capacity

filled, full

first and foremost

first

future plans

plans

general consensus

agreement, consensus

join together

join

month of November

November

12 noon

noon

past history

history

period of time

period, time

postpone until later

postpone

refer back

refer

thoroughly understand

understand

totally dedicated, totally devoted

dedicated, devoted

total number

total

For more concise replacements for redundant phrases.

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Avoid using jargon

Using unfamiliar jargon and bureaucratese can cause problems because your reader may not understand it. Jargon also can distract your reader from your real message. Write boots, not leather personnel carriers; telephone, not telephonic communications instrument; advocate for the homeless, not homeless advocate; next to or near, not adjacent to; make easy or help or lead, not facilitate.

Be wary of trendy, fashionable expressions such as downtime, synergy, downside and touch base. Try inviting people into a planning process, not a visioning process. Trendy terminology could confuse or annoy readers and date it. Similarly, avoid old-fashioned sayings and formal phrases like grist in the mill, pig in a poke, as per your letter (instead, try according to your letter), notwithstanding (instead, try despite or still).

Also, avoid terms that could be misunderstood by readers who use English as a second language or by people translating a document from English into another language. Such terms include military and sports vocabulary-level playing field, end runs, targets, game plans, sticky wickets, tackle; and  regionalisms and slang-that dog don't hunt; jury-rig or jerry-built. They also include literary and cultural allusions-heart on his sleeve, move mountains, an offer he can't refuse; and metaphors-a steep learning curve, a piece of cake, pave the way for.

  • Instead of:
    All illumination on these premises must be extinguished upon departure.
  • Use:
    Please turn out the lights if you're the last to leave.

Avoid or explain technical words or difficult terms

Whenever possible, avoid words that your readers do not know. Every occupation and interest group has special terms. If you must use a technical term, define it--either by giving a definition, explaining the term or by giving an example. If suitable for your publication, think about including a glossary of technical words and difficult terms.

Also, avoid technical terms used with nontechnical meanings: Use start instead of initialize; work with, meet or call instead of interface with. And avoid rare or fancy words used within your work group or profession, like nexus and infrastructure.

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Don't change verbs into nouns

Use verbs to suggest the most significant actions in your sentences. Nouns created from verbs are harder for the reader to understand. They also give the sentence an impersonal tone: explain, not provide an explanation; decide, not make a decision; decide (or find or work out or discover), not make a determination.

Use verbs to suggest the most significant actions in your sentences. . They also give the sentence an impersonal tone: , not ; , not ; (or or or ), not .

Also, use verbs instead of abstract nouns-consider instead of consideration, adjust instead of adjustment, recommend instead ofrecommendationimprove instead of improvement.

When you write a noun that comes from a verb, see if you can turn it back into a verb by removing endings like -tion, -ence and -ment. Use the clearest, crispest, liveliest verb to express your thoughts.

  • Instead of:
    The requirement of the department is that employees work eight hours a day.
  • Use:
    The department requires employees to work eight hours a day.
  • Instead of:
    The team's role is to perform problem definition and resolution.
  • Use:
    The team's role is to define problems and resolve them.
  • Or:
    The team's role is to define and resolve problems.

Here are other examples:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

bring to a conclusion

assume, close, decide, end, finish, infer, settle

carry out an evaluation

check, evaluate, test

conduct a review of

review

conduct an investigation

explore, find out, look at, look into, research, study

exhibit improvement

improve

file an application

apply

gave an explanation

explained

give a justification for

justify

give assistance

aid, backing, help, relieve, support

have an objection

object

have knowledge of, have need for

know, need

have reservations about

doubt

hold a meeting

meet

make a proposal

propose, recommend

offer a suggestion

suggest

perform an assessment of

assess

placed an order

ordered

reach an agreement, reach a conclusion

agree, conclude

send an invitation to

invite

take action

act

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Avoid chains of nouns

Chains of nouns are strings of two or more nouns used to name one thing. They are often difficult for a reader to understand.

Consider defining, explaining or revising noun phrases. Will the meaning of a noun phrase be familiar or clear to your readers or translator? If not, explain it in context, revise it to make its meaning clear, or define it in a glossary.

Noun chains take some effort to untangle. They lack connecting words--such as of, for, about, in and the possessive 's--that would clarify how the nouns relate to one another.

  • Instead of:
    World population is increasing faster than world food production
  • Use:
    The world's population is increasing faster than its food production.

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Use acronyms and abbreviations carefully

Remember that not everyone may know what the acronyms and abbreviations stand for. Avoid nonessential abbreviations, Latin abbreviations, uncommon contractions and obscure acronyms, especially in documents that may be translated for or used by readers with limited English proficiency. Also, avoid informal nonstandard spellings and shortened words.

Sometimes, putting an acronym or abbreviation in parentheses the first time you use the proper term can be useful. Then you can use the acronym in the rest of your text. But even if you use that technique, avoid filling a document with various obscure acronyms. Also see abbreviations and acronyms in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

When in doubt, spell it out.

Here are other examples:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

aka

also known as

ASAP

as soon as possible, soon [or be specific about time]

could've, should've, would've

could have, should have, would have

e.g.

for example, such as

etc.

and so on, and the rest

i.e.

that is

hi, lo

high, low

lb., oz.

pound, ounce

lite

light

mightn't, mustn't

might not, must not

n.a., N/A

not applicable, not available, none

rep

repetition, representative

specs

specifications

stats

statistics

that'll

that will

thru

through

vet

veteran, veterinarian

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Use capital letters sparingly, consistently

Avoid unnecessary capitalization. Capital letters are an important cue to readers and translators that a term is a proper noun, not a common noun. Use capital letters to identify proper nouns -- the formal, official, unique or popular names of a specific person, organization, place or thing. Also use capital letters to begin sentences, headings, the important words in publication titles, and letters in some abbreviations and acronyms.

Random, excessive capitalization for other purposes hinders reading and may confuse readers. Do not capitalize the first letter of a word or words in a phrase simply to highlight them or to express their importance. Translators typically translate common nouns and leave proper nouns in English.

Also see capitalizationand related entries in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.


Use inclusive language

Sexist writing builds a barrier between you and half your readers. Use sex-neutral terms by avoiding words that suggest maleness is the norm, superior or positive and that femaleness is nonstandard, subordinate or negative. For guidelines, see sex, sexism in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

Readers with disabilities also face barriers--in communications and facilities. For guidelines in using suitable language, see disabled in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

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