12 Plain Language

Plain Language

Dr. Anna L. Zendell

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, students will be able to:

  1. Define plain language.
  2. Describe real-world applications for use of plain language.
  3. Identify the critical elements of plain language digital writing.
  4. Evaluate their own writing for use of plain language.

Plain language has become an important part of digital writing. People are busier than ever and often do not have the time to sift through paragraphs of dense text. Recent waves of natural disasters, cybersecurity threats, and the COVID-19 pandemic have placed a spotlight on the importance of using clear language, especially from government and scientific sectors.

The language we use has tremendous power to convey information, emotion, and much more. Today, most people get their information by “surfing” on the internet. Scanning information has replaced reading. In fact, studies from the Nielsen Norman Group (2008, 2019) have consistently shown that up to 79% of people simply scan the words on web pages they visit. The more specialized – and digitized – we become as a society, the more important it is to make sure that our sentences and paragraphs are clear and concise.

We want our intended audience to read and understand what we are saying, quickly and easily. Whether the audience is professors, classmates, customers, or the public in general, we want to make it easy for our audience to understand and respond positively to us. Using overly technical, heavily academic, or flowery language can turn off those who we want to read the message (Ward, 2020). These overly technical tactics may even make us look less intelligent or credible (Bohm, 2019).

Simple language is considered imperative. This has been a truism for centuries. Consider that Hippocrates wrote: “The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”

What is Plain Language?

The United States (U.S.) federal government defines plain language as:

“Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practice appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience” (plainlanguage.gov, n.d.).

You may wonder how the U.S. government got involved in how people write. If you have ever tried reading government documents, you may have found them long, dense, and boring. It might take ten pages to figure out the point!

The government has information it needs to share for the safety and well-being of its citizens. In fact, the U.S. has advocated for plain language in government documents for many decades. In the 1990s, plain language became a rallying cry for government officials. Former Vice President Al Gore believed in plain language as a civil right for all Americans. He incentivized federal employees through his “No Gobbledygook Award” program to convert heavily bureaucratic documents into plain language for everyday citizens (Evans, 2020; plainlanguage.gov, n.d.)

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law The Plain Writing Act of 2010, formally called “An act to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly, and for other purposes” (Evans, 2020). This law requires government agencies to use plain language in every new document written and in all document revisions. Each government website also must have a plain language page devoted to transparency for its web viewers. See the textbox below for just a few sample pages.

You may find it interesting to visit a government website of interest to you to view the site’s plain language page.

Why is Plain Language Important?

The most important reason for plain language is to ensure your audience can understand what you are saying. Having language that is easy to understand can be a matter of life or death in some fields. Think about the need for clarity in fields like health care, cybersecurity, and even technical fields like automotive repair. Plain language can also be highly effective and efficient, potentially saving a great deal of time and money.

Though we focus on plain language in the digital writing context, it is important to realize that plain language is a universally useful skill. Plain language touches how we verbally present information, create video content to show information, design brochures and infographics, and plan out our message before we ever put fingers to keyboard. It is a highly marketable skill for entering and advancing in the workforce. The graphic below illustrates several reasons to use plain language.

Figure created by Zendell, A. (2021).


As you can see from the graphic above, there are many applications for plain language. A google search of how to write clear instructions yields pages of “how-to” guides for a variety of industries. If interested, you might want to google “how to write clear instructions” plus your career interest. (Just be sure to do a credibility check on the pages!)  In addition to writing clear instructions, here are just a few of the applications for plain language:

  • teaching materials
  • legal contracts
  • privacy statements
  • terms of service statements
  • accessibility statements
  • consent forms
  • reports
  • media articles
  • interview questions
  • marketing
  • complaint process and policies

Let’s look at some typical situations requiring plain language from four different professions: health care, cybersecurity, energy, and business sectors.


Lately, we have been looking for clear, easy-to-understand health information about the coronavirus, vaccines, masking, ventilation, social distanci

Physician writing
Photo by Devin Taylor retrieved from https://unsplash.com/collections/rVd6f-iPeV0/health

ng, herd immunity, return to work, and other topics. Getting this information out to the public in clear language is deceptively complicated. Professionals must take complex public health, medical, and environmental concepts and translate them to everyday language. They interpret complex research findings into easy-to-understand statements.


One common use of plain language in health care involves taking all the information we have available to create a set of recommended action steps the public can take to stay safe and healthy, and presenting it in a well-organized, consistent manner. Examples of important communications include public health information about pandemic safety, tobacco cessation, or climate change. How often have you read healthcare information and wondered what exactly the writer was trying to say?

When we think about pandemic-related messaging, the public is not always the primary audience. Information is also conveyed to health providers, public health departments, public administrators, politicians, organizational leaders, and other audiences. Use of plain language can help to ensure that all these potential audiences can use the information.


Let’s take cybersecurity as our next example. We have seen increasing hacks, malware, ransomware, and other cyber-attacks. Hospitals, electrical grids, schools, government and private organizations, and individuals are all at risk of a cyber-attack. Think about the cybersecurity training or communications you have gotten through your school, employer, or from the media. What stood out to you? Was it easy to understand? After reading that information, did you know how to protect yourself from a cyber-attack, or were you left confused?

As with health care, cybersecurity professionals share information with a variety of audiences: organizations, governments, schools, media, and the public. The use of plain language simplifies the communication process. Yet, it is also important to remember to tailor messaging to meet each audience’s needs. Think about disclosures for privacy protection on a website. The consumer-facing plain language privacy policy should be short, direct, and clear. There may be another policy page written for organizations that use the website to transfer data, such as credit card transactions or personally identifying information (PII).


Image by Alex Green via Pexels

In the business world, a plain language product description will attract potential buyers. A long, highly technical product description may attract a subset of “expert” buyers, but it will not attract a major market. Use of plain language will save time and money if done right. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article made a compelling case for use of plain language in contracts to make negotiations and closing the deal easier (Burton, 2018).

Additionally, there is a global business imperative to use plain language. As of 2018, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) requires the use of clear and plain language for any company operating in the European Union (EU).  Key goals of this provision include individual control over how personal data is used and simplifying international business regulations within the EU (GDPR.EU, n.d.)

Plain language makes customers feel more connected with the business and will therefore often win customer loyalty. Someone purchasing a lamp with some assembly required wants clear instructions. The business that provides a short, clear instruction pamphlet with images will benefit from enhanced customer satisfaction.

Energy Industry

Choices abound for homeowners seeking cheaper, perhaps greener, energy sources for their homes. Many consumers can choose their electricity sources, comparison shop fuel, and explore incentives for solar energy. Increasingly electricity providers are messaging their customers about their choices in user-friendly brochures and web pages.

On a more granular level, the DIY, or do-it-yourself movement, has flooded the internet with instructions on how to wire electrical outlets, create lamps, and install hard wired outdoor lighting and security cameras. The importance of clarity for home safety and fire prevention is obvious. This area is more consumer-led, and plain language is not guaranteed. In fact, many instruction guides are densely worded or printed in extremely small font that the average person has to strain to read.  The need for the DIY sector has grown in importance, offering much-needed clarity in accomplishing projects.

Think about your personal and career interests. Where have you found plain language communication helpful, and where have you found it lacking?

What are the Challenges?

For many, adapting to plain language writing can be difficult. As a college student, you are trained to write in academic language. Your audience is usually your professors. There may be emphasis on the use of technical terms and scholarly language. You may feel that your grade is at risk if you try to write cleanly and simply.

Translating research into plain language takes time. More time can also mean more expense.  Plain language also requires a deep understanding of the content and your audience. You may be adapting your work to different audiences, including audiences from diverse cultures.

Take communication of a city disaster preparedness plan as an example. Consider: how might the communication differ for public administrators, hospitals, community members, and a local manufacturing company? All will benefit from plain language. Think about what that language should be for each. What should the tone be for each?

Are you confused yet? The good news is that all these challenges can be overcome by knowing your audience. Ask yourself three simple questions as you prepare to write:

  • Who will read it?
  • What do they need to know?
  • How will they most easily understand, believe, and act on this information?

The payoff for plain language communication can be enormous. A 2009 survey by Spiegel + Gale, often cited even today, found that 84% of consumer respondents said they were more likely to trust organizations that used jargon-free, plain language communication (Greer, 2012).

 How Do I Use Plain Language?

First, it is important to understand the elements of plain language. Agoratus (2021) shares five crucial elements:

  • Audience
  • Structure
  • Expression
  • Design
  • Evaluation

Let’s go through each of these elements. Each element has some specific strategies you can use to develop skill in plain language writing.

First, know your audience.

  • What are your readers’ skills?
  • What do they know already?
  • What are their literacy skills?
  • What are their information needs and wants?

Next, decide how you will structure your writing.

  • How will you present the information? Will you use bullets, paragraphs, a graphic, or all three?
  • What main points do you want to convey? Which order makes the most sense?

Third, think about how you will express your message.

  • Keep your sentences short and clear.
  • Use an active voice, e.g., “proofread your writing,” rather than “all writing must be proofread.”
  • Avoid the use of jargon, such as technical terminology, slang, and idioms that may not be universally understood.
  • Use short paragraphs with only one point in each paragraph.
  • Streamline your sentences or bullets. Remove any unneeded words.
  • Stick to your main topic. Avoid tangents or extra information that does not support your essential message.
  • Decide whether you will use a conversational tone or a more formal one.

Fourth, decide how you will design your message.

  • What size and type of font will you use?
  • How much white space do you want?
  • Will you use headings?
  • What visuals will have the most impact on your readers, for example infographic, table, image, pie chart, or something else?
  • Does your design help your readers focus on your message, or might it confuse them?
  • Do you anticipate readers with literacy issues or disabilities? If so, how will that change your design choices?

Lastly, decide how you will evaluate your writing.

  • Will you use a checklist to review your work?
  • Will you have someone else review your work before you distribute it?
  • Will you solicit feedback from your readers after they have seen your message?

Each of these steps is important. It can be tempting to minimize the evaluation step. However, taking short-cuts on evaluation can be detrimental to the success of your communication. Evaluation gives you a valuable opportunity to critically assess how well your communication is designed and how effective it is likely to be for your audience. By gathering feedback, you can catch any problems, make revisions, and fine-tune your communication to be highly effective.

What does Plain Language look like in action?

There are many examples available. Consider this one from the “No Gobbledygook Award.”  This award was created by former Vice President Al Gore to reward government agencies for making language easier for the public to understand. See below for an award-winning 1998 rewrite of a consumer article on how to safely cook a turkey.

Read the “Before” and “After” sections in the table below. Notice the increased readability because of the simplified language and the use of personal pronouns. Look at the technical language and information that was removed in the later version.  Did the rewording hinder the important message of turkey safety? No! In fact, the “After” version is much easier for your average stressed out person to follow on Thanksgiving Day.

Source* Before  After 

(original source)

If stuffing a turkey, use a meat thermometer. Cooking a home-stuffed turkey can be somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Bacteria can survive in stuffing which has not reached the safe temperature of 165 F, possibly resulting in a foodborne illness. Even if the turkey itself has reached the proper internal temperature of 180 F in the innermost part of the thigh, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature in all parts of the stuffing sufficient to destroy foodborne bacteria. If stuffing does not reach 165 F when the turkey itself is done to 180 F, further cooking will be required. During the added cooking necessary to bring the stuffing up to a safe temperature, the meat may become overcooked. Make sure you cook both your turkey and your stuffing completely. If you don’t, bacteria that can make you sick may still be alive. Here are the most important things to remember about stuffing:

Cook the stuffing separately — it’s MUCH safer! If you absolutely have to cook the stuffing in the turkey, use a thermometer to make sure the stuffing reaches a temperature of 165 F and the turkey reaches a temperature of 180 F in the innermost part of the thigh. Measure the temperature of both the turkey and stuffing! Don’t just trust a pop-up indicator!

US Department of Health and Human Services


The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing. Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.
US Department of the Interior


When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area. If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.


With the passage of the federal Plain Writing Act, there are many resources available to guide you. Here are seven high-quality resources. You may want to bookmark these for future use.

  • Plain Language.Gov is a United States government website overseen by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). It serves as a resource for all federal agencies to provide clear communication to the public. There are several useful plain language checklists.
  • Center for Plain Language is a private advocacy website dedicated to training and resources to support plain language in government and organizational communications.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Everyday Words for Public Communication web page provides recommendations from CDC’s Health Literacy Council and other agency communicators on how to use plain language to improve reader understanding and reduce the use of jargon.
  • Plain English Campaign’s A to Z of Alternative Words is list of alternate words to commonly used formal or complex words, such as allocation, endeavor, modification, and other words. The Plain English Campaign is a United Kingdom advocacy organization that works with governments and other national and international organizations to simplify their public information for transparency and accessibility for all.
  • The Readability Formula has several free screening tools to help you check your writing against plain language specifications and the needs of your audience.
  • The US Food & Drug Administration Plain Language website has many helpful strategies and examples of plain language writing.
  • The Write Plain Language Standard template by noted plain language consultant, Anne-Marie Chisnall, and colleagues contains ten simple questions to use on your writing to ensure it is clearly written. Download for free at Chisnall’s website.


Plain language is strategically important in digital writing. It provides clarity and focus for your readers. Plain language can be more effective, save time and effort, promote safety, and build trusting relationships with your audience. You have now learned the steps to plain language writing. Practice will increase your comfort with this important life and career skill.



  • Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Everyday Words for Public Communication and put in a common public health term, such as prevalence, incidence, surveillance, or mortality. Compare the original CDC sentence with the plain language version.
  • Visit a U.S. federal government website’s plain language page and explore how this government agency is addressing plain language for the public.
  • Take a sampling of your writing and analyze it through one or more Readability Formula website tools.


Agoratus, L. (2021). Language must be accessible too! Exceptional Parent, 51(7), 56–57.

Bohm, T. (2019). An interview with Anne-Marie Chisnall from Write on plain English and information design. Information Design Journal (IDJ), 25(2), 222–236. https://doi.org/10.1075/idj.25.2.06boh

Burton, S. (2018). Business writing: The case for plain-language contracts. Harvard Business Review Online.

Evans, K. (2020). Using plain language when you write. Nurse Author & Editor (Blackwell), 30(3), 1–9.

GDPR.EU. (n.d.) What is GDPR, the EU’s new data protection law? Retrieved from https://gdpr.eu/what-is-gdpr/

Greer, Rachelle. (2012). Introducing plain language principles to business communication students. Business Communication Quarterly – Bus Comm Q. 75, 136-152. 10.1177/1080569912441967.

Moran, K. (2020, April 05). How people read online: New and old findings. Nielsen Norman Group.  Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-people-read-online/

Nielsen, J. (1997, September 30). How users read on the web. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/

Plain Language Action and Information Network. (n.d.) Plainlanguage.gov.

Ward, R. P. (2020). The science behind plain language. Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, 19, 181–186.