Plain Language

The Method

First, plain language is not “dumbing down” information. Plain language refers to a method of communicating in a way that fits the needs, interests, and abilities of the intended audience. Plain language can be used in all forms of communication—oral, print, web, multimedia, and social media.

The plain language method of communicating includes:

  • Clear and effective writing and speaking that the intended audience can easily understand (whether plain English, plain Spanish, or plain Swedish)
  • No jargon, bureaucratic language, “medicalese,” or “legalese”
  • Graphic design that draws readers and surfers in and helps them navigate the information with ease
  • Information organized in a way that makes sense to the intended audience
  • Information limited to the relevant points the audience needs to take appropriate action

You might be thinking, “But won’t it offend the good readers?” When done appropriately and thoughtfully, plain language is not offensive to anyone. Studies have shown that skilled readers appreciate plain language because it’s a “quick read” and to the point.

The Movement

Second, plain language is also a movement in many countries. Consumers around the globe are asking for more clarity, less jargon, and more transparency in a variety of areas, from the financial industry, to legislation, to health information from their doctors. This movement has been growing for the last 30 years. Some of the more active countries are England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States.

Plain Language in the United States

Plain language has been gaining ground in the federal government for well over a decade. In 1998, then-President Clinton issued a Presidential Memorandum requiring government agencies to use plain language in communications with the public. This memorandum has been supported by all subsequent administrations.

In 2010, plain language advocates achieved a major victory when the Plain Writing Act was passed. This law requires federal government agencies to write publications and forms in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner using plain language guidelines.

Most recently, in January 2012, Rep. Bruce Braley introduced the Plain Regulations Act. This act would require federal government agencies to write clear, simple and easy to understand regulations. This bill is under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Most government agencies, including our largest federal health agencies, are working to improve communication with the public by using plain language. The National Institutes of Health hold an annual competition for the best plain language materials produced in the Institutes.

Why Use Plain Language?
  • Plain language saves time and money.
    • If readers can easily find information in your print materials, you’ll have fewer calls for help. For example, Southern California Gas Company simplified its billing statement and saved an estimated $252,000 per year from reduced customer inquiries.
    • Your employees can save time reading and writing clear memos and concise e-mails. U.S. Naval officers read plain language business memos in about 20% less time. This could save $53 to $73 million a year if all of the memos officers read were written in plain language.
  • Clear health communication using plain language can save lives! Patients need to understand how to care for their chronic conditions, take medications, or prepare for surgery. If they misunderstand this information, their lives are truly at stake.
  • Plain language is easier to read than technical, legal, or complicated writing. Therefore, readers are more likely to read through the information rather than just skim it.
  • Even confident readers appreciate plain language. It enables them to read more quickly and with increased comprehension.

For more information about plain language, see the sites below. They are full of useful information and other important links.

www.plainlanguage.gov
www.plainlanguagenetwork.org

For one example of plain language in action, check out this NIA blog post at http://www.nia.nih.gov/research/blog/2014/11/explaining-your-science-tips-clear-communication.