27 Introduction to Plain Language

Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you will be able to

  • define plain language and identify the three core elements of plain language
  • explain the benefits of using plain language
  • use the SCORE principles to revise communication

You might be surprised to learn that Canadian employers want employees to write using plain language.

In fact, the Canadian government requires employees to write plainly – and so does the World Health Organization (WHO)! A branch of The United States government created Federal plain language guidelines to ensure that government agencies were writing plainly. Much of the information in the Plain Language chapters of this e-text has been adapted from these guidelines.

The Three Elements of Plain Language

When you write using plain language, you write with your audience and purpose in mind. To write plainly, you must consider three main elements: word choice, sentence structure, and tone.

1. Word choice

Plain language is easy to understand, so you are able to communicate clearly with a wide audience. Writers should avoid uncommon or overly technical language that might not be understood by everyone.

Plain word choices are

  • simple, common, accurate words
  • not jargon, idioms, or figurative language
  • inclusive

2. Sentence structure

Plain language is concise, so  readers can get the message quickly. Being concise means conveying your message accurately and politely in as few words as possible.  When you are concise, you are respectful of your readers’ time. Plain sentence structure uses

  • direct, concise, and simple sentences
  • active voice unless passive is necessary
If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.

3. Tone

Plain language has a positive, conversational tone, so you can establish a friendly rapport with your reader. Writing with an appropriate tone has

  • a friendly, conversational, and positive feeling
  • first and second person pronouns that speak “to” to the reader

Note using first and second pronouns (I, me, you, our, etc.) is appropriate in business writing, but is usually NOT appropriate in formal academic writing.

The SCORE Principle

Another way to think about plain language is to consider the “SCORE” communication principles[1].

SCORE Principle The Rationale Suggestions
S =

Simplify and Specify

Much miscommunication happens across cultures because the language is hard to understand or the details are not specific. Make your communication as easy to understand as possible:
  • Aim for short sentences that are 12 words or less.
  • Simplify complicated language: “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you…” is revised to “Please…”
  • Make time zones, locations, and deadlines clear.
  • Limit use of acronyms and idioms; if you must use them, ensure that the meaning is clear: “By ‘ballpark figures,’ I mean a general estimate of pricing”.
C =

Clarify and Confirm

Two people may think they understood each other, but they may actually have a different understanding of the situation. Therefore, it is important to continually clarify what you are intending to communicate and confirm that this is in fact what the other person understands. Ensure the message you are delivering is clear and understood:
  • Clarify your message: “What I mean is…”
  • Check regularly that you are understanding the other person: “So, what you are saying is….”
  • Check to ensure the other person has understood you: “What is your understanding so far?”
O =

Organize and Outline

When communication is highly structured and organized well, it becomes easier for others to understand the main points. Structure your communication:
  • Number or letter key ideas to divide them into the main points.
  • When face to face, use your hands and gestures to help structure key points.
  • State the purpose of your email clearly and concisely in the subject line.
  • Use headings to organize different topics within an email or letter.
R =

Rephrase and Reframe

Providing multiple ways of saying the same thing increases the chances of being understood. Provide alternative ways of saying the same thing:
  • To conclude, restate the most important idea using different words and a different grammatical structure.
  • Use analogies, metaphors, and stories to illustrate main points.
E =

Explain with Examples

Providing the rationale behind our thinking can make our intentions clearer to our audience. Using examples to illustrate our points (and sometimes literally illustrating our point using drawings and visuals) helps clarify our message. Reinforce key concepts with explanations and examples:
  • Provide the ‘why’ behind ideas or requests.
  • Provide specific examples to support ideas.
  • Provide visual illustrations where possible.

Review the next three chapters to learn more about these three elements of plain language. When you are done, come back to this chapter and complete the Learning Check and try one or more of the activities below. You can also review the additional resources at the end of this chapter.

Learning Check

Exercise for Clear Writing from Learning Networks of Ontario

Practice writing clearly. Use principles of plain language to revise these sentences:

  1. There are so many social problems such as wife abuse, child abuse, more frequent use of fire arms among teens and on to such needs as food banks.
  2. Those engaged in the business of farming are discouraging future generations from farming because of the lack of being able to provide a viable income.
  3. We are sorry to advise you that the new program changes will not be completed until Wednesday.
  4. The lack of landfill sites and the continual need to recycle is an issue everyone must deal with.
  5. A new addition to our Gymnastics programs, a “Display Team” will be added for those children who would like to work on routines and have the talent and desire to perform.

Share your sentences with a partner and evaluate each other’s work.


Additional Resources to Practice Writing in a Plain Style

Free Linked In Learning Courses

Good writing doesn’t come easily – you have to practice! Choose one (or both!) of these Linkedin Learning courses. Each one will take about an hour to complete. When you’ve completed the course, you can add the certificate to your Linkedin profile. You will need to be logged in to your Linkedin account with your Confederation College credentials. If you have difficulty accessing Linkedin Learning, contact the library for help.

This Business Writing Principles Linkedin Learning course by Judy Steiner-Williams has excellent tips to become a better business writer. Watch part 1 “Improving your Business Writing”. What are the “10 Cs” of good writing?

This Writing in Plain Language Linkedin Learning course by Leslie O’Flahavan explains plain language in more detail. Remember, Canadian employers expect employees to use plain language when writing internal and external messages.

Other Courses

This Clear Writing Works! course is offered by Learning Networks of Ontario. Note that there is a fee for this course.

Government Websites

See how the plain-language style is applied in the Canadian government by visiting the websites for Public Works and Government Services Canada

Nick Wright’s “Complex and Abstract Words” provides advice on revising complex and abstract words.

  1. Berardo, K. (2012). Framework: The SCORE communication principles. In K. Berardo and D.K. Deardorff (eds.), Building cultural competence: Innovative activities and models (p. 228). Stylus.


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