33 Plain Language: Tone and Inclusivity

Being concise does not mean being rude. Your writing should be conversational and friendly yet professional

Learning Objectives

After you complete this chapter, you will be able to

  • write using a professional, confident, and conversational tone
    • choose words with the correct formality (Smith, n.d.)
    • use contractions (PLAIN, 2011, p. 27)
    • use personal pronouns (PLAIN, 2011, p. 30)
    • chose positive or neutral phrasing (Meyer, 2017, p. 131)
    • stress reader benefits (GreggU, 2018; Meyer, 2017, p. 132-133; Smith, n.d.)
  • Use inclusive language (Queen’s University, n.d., Inclusive Language)
    • Use person-centered language
    • Use accurate terms to refer to an individual’s race or ethnicity
    • Use gender-neutral terms and respect an individual’s gender identity

Use a Conversational Tone

Tone refers to the level of formality or friendliness that a message has. Most business correspondence should be polite, professional, and conversational – not stiff and formal and certainly not rude or sloppy. The right tone is created by using the right words.

Choose the Right Words [1]

Word choice is called “diction”.  The  words used when writing to a co-worker should be different from the words used when writing to your manager or a customer.  The table below provides words choices that reflect informal, semi-formal and formal language.  Understanding the audience will ensure your choice of words is always right for the situation.

Informal / Slang Semi-formal / Common Formal / Fancy
kick off begin / start commence
cut off end terminate
put off delay postpone
awesome / dope good positive
crappy / shoddy bad negative
flaunt show demonstrate
find out discover ascertain
go up rise increase
fess up / come clean admit confess
 mull over  consider  contemplate
 bad-mouth / put down  insult / belittle  denigrate
 plus  also  moreover
 jones for  need  require
 put up with  endure / suffer  tolerate
 leave out / skip  omit  exclude
 give the go-ahead / green light  permit  authorize
 loaded / well-heeled  wealthy / rich  affluent / monied
 deal with  handle  manage
 pronto / a.s.a.p.  now  immediately
 muddy  confuse  obfuscate
From “Unit 5: Analyzing your Audience” in J. Smith Communication at Work, n.d., Kwantlen Polytechnic University (https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/communicationsatwork/) CC-BY 4.0.

Learning Check

Practice your writing using plain language. Rewrite the following sentences.

From “Unit 5: Analyzing Your Audience,” in J. Smith, Communication at Work, n.d., Kwantlen Polytechnic University (https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/communicationsatwork/) CC-BY 4.0.

Use Contractions and Personal Pronouns [2]

Contractions are words that are joined with an apostrophe to “contract” or make the two words into one short word. Examples include can’t, doesn’t, don’t, hasn’t, it’s, she’s, won’t, etc.

Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns: he, she, it, etc.  First-person pronouns used to refer to yourself include I, me, mine, my, we, and our. Second-person pronouns to refer to the person you are speaking to are you, your, and yours.

While the use of contractions and first- and second-person pronouns is often not acceptable in formal academic writing, business writing should be more personal and conversational. A good guideline is to “write as you talk”.

Use contractions wherever they sound natural and use first- and second-person pronouns (I, we, you) to speak directly to readers.

Compare these examples

Don’t Say Do Say
No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped
from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property.
If you are a pilot in command of a civil aircraft, don’t allow any object that
creates a hazard to persons or property to be dropped from that aircraft during flight.
Facilities in regional and district offices are available to the public during normal business hours for requesting copies of agency records. If you are a private citizen, you can get copies of our records at any regional or district office.

Activity[3]: Revising for Tone and Conciseness

How can Tyler revise this part of his message so that he uses more concise language and a more appropriate tone? What general advice would you give to Tyler?

Example of Poorly Written Message

Be Positive [4]

Positive wording makes messages reader-friendly and inviting.

Unless you are issuing a warning meant to stop or deter certain actions, you should emphasize what the reader can do instead of what the reader can’t.

Also avoid harsh, negative-sounding words such as no, not, regret, mistake, oversight, overlook, negligence, neglect, unable, unfortunately, allege, careless, reject, deny, and fail(ure). Use phrasing that is factual and neutral.

Don’t Say Do Say
You cannot use Verified by Visa until you have been issued a password. You may begin using Verified by Visa once you receive password.
By failing to park in your assigned space, you caused our visitors a terrible inconvenience. Parking spaces adjacent to the entrance are reserved for visitors.
Your failure to observe safety guidelines will result in a mechanical shutdown. The machine automatically shuts down whenever a safety infraction occurs.

Use dependent clauses and the passive voice to reduce negativity and depersonalize unfavourable facts.

Don’t Say Do Say
We cannot extend credit to you at this time. Although credit cannot be extended to you at this time, we look forward to serving you on a cash basis.

Stress Reader Benefits and Relevance [5]

Readers should easily see how information concerns them or how they stand to benefit. When readers feel that their opinions matter and have been taken into consideration, they are more likely to follow instructions and comply with requests.

Writer-centred Reader-focused
We offer our repeat customers substantial discounts. As a repeat customer, you will enjoy substantial discounts.
We ask that all customers complete the enclosed questionnaire by April 30 so that we may assess the effectiveness of our technical support services. To ensure you receive the highest standard of technical support please assist us by completing the enclosed quality-control questionnaire.

Watch the following video on how to use the “you attitude” in your writing. [6]

Learning Check

Click on each image to make them bigger if needed.

From “Unit 5: Analyzing your Audience” in J. Smith Communication at Work, n.d., Kwantlen Polytechnic University (https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/communicationsatwork/) CC-BY.

Use Inclusive Language

According to Queen’s University (n.d.)[7], inclusive language respects and promotes all people as valued members of society. It uses vocabulary that avoids exclusion and stereotyping and is free from descriptors that portray individuals or groups of people as dependent, powerless, or less valued than others. It avoids all sexist, racist, or other discriminatory terminology.

Guiding Principles of Inclusive Language

  • Use person-centered language
  • Use accurate terms for Indigenous Peoples
  • Use gender-neutral terms and respect an individual’s gender identity

Person-Centered Language

Put the person before any description about their abilities or disabilities, and avoid using terms like handicapped, crazy, or crippled.

Don’t Say Do Say
disabled person a person with a disability
a crazy person a person with a mental illness
a blind person a person with loss of vision

Race and Ethnicity

Avoid identifying people by race, colour, or national origin, unless it is appropriate for context, and do not assume that a person’s appearance defines their nationality or cultural background.

Capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, and races: Indigenous, Métis, Cree, Inuit, Arab, French-Canadian, Jew, Latin, Asian.

Black is acceptable in all references to people of African descent. In the United States, African-American is used; in Canada, Black-Canadian is most commonly used. African-Canadian is sometimes used. Note that black and white do not name races and are lowercase.

Don’t Say Do Say
minority group minority ethnic group
visible minority member of a racialized group

Indigenous People

There are three distinct groups of Indigenous Peoples in Canada: First Nations (status and non-status Indians), Inuit, and Métis. Confederation College sits on the lands of the Anishinaabe people of Fort William First Nation, who are signatory to the Robinson-Superior of 1850.

Where possible, avoid using the terms Aboriginals, Native People, or First Nations People, as they do not encompass the separate origins and identities of the various groups. The term Indigenous is now widely accepted to refer to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people.

Don’t Say Do Say
Natives Indigenous people
Eskimo Inuit
reserve territory
He is First Nations He is Anishinaabe (use the specific Nation, community, or band where possible)


Use inclusive gender-neutral terms. Avoid using outdated terms that suggest a gender.
Don’t Say Do Say
mankind humankind
man hours working hours
man made artificial, synthetic or constructed
stewardess flight attendant
policeman police officer
spokesman spokesperson
husband/wife partner/spouse

Also, pay attention to phrasing to avoid awkward pronoun constructions. Using a plural usually solves the issue of gendered pronouns.

Don’t Say Do Say
Each first-year student should open his orientation package. First-year students should open their orientation packages.

Be aware that the gender identity of an individual may not conform to social expectations about gender based on anatomy and appearance, or to the gender assigned that individual at birth. Some individuals identify themselves as and that some individuals do not identify themselves as being male or female, man or woman.

Also, a person’s name does not always suggest what gender they identify with (for example, Pat, Sam, and Taylor are names that are common for both males and females).  Some email signatures indicate which pronoun (he, she, or they) a person prefers.

Where it is not clear what, if any, gendered pronouns or nouns may be appropriately used for an individual, ask that individual and respect the individual’s wishes or use the plural “they”. Most importantly, respect the preferences of the individuals or groups concerned.

Don’t Say Do Say
I’ve never met Pat. Is she nice? I’ve never met Pat. Are they nice?

Additional Resources

The Government of Canada has created a “Quick Reference Sheet” that provides examples of gender-inclusive writing techniques.

See the Reference Sheet here: https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/inclusive-writing-quick-reference-sheet

Learning Check


CHECKLIST | Tone Guidelines

❑    Have you used a conversational tone?

❑    Have you used positive or neutral language and stressed reader benefits?

❑    Have you use words and phrases with positive or neutral connotations?

❑    Have you stressed reader benefits?

❑    Have you used inclusive language?

  1. Smith, J. (n.d.). Communication at work. Kwantlen Polytechnic University. https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/communicationsatwork/ CC BY 4.0
  2. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). (2011, May). Federal Plain Language Guidelines, revision 1. https://www.plainlanguage.gov/media/FederalPLGuidelines.pdf
  3. Williams, V. ( n.d.) Chapter 3: Style and tone. In Fundamentals of business communication. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/businesswritingessentials/chapter/ch-4-style-and-tone/.  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
  4. Meyer, C. (2017). Business style. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student's guide (4th ed., pp. 111-143).
  5. Meyer, C. (2017). Business style. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student's guide (4th ed., pp. 111-143).
  6. GreggU. (2018, December 12). You attitude in business writing [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJK7hMXehj0
  7. Queen's University. (n.d.). Inclusive language. In Style guide: Writing style. https://www.queensu.ca/brand-central/writing-style/inclusive.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Intercultural Business Communication by Confederation College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book