5 Plain Language
Crafting Your Message with Plain Language
Upon completing this chapter, you should be able to:
- identify active and passive voice, jargon, positive and negative tone, and unnecessary words in written and oral communications;
- rewrite a given message while adhering to five principles of plain language: active voice, common words, positive tone, reader focus, and short (concise) words and sentences;
- proofread another student’s work, or your own, with a focus on the five principles of plain language: active voice, common words, positive tone, reader focus, and short (concise) words and sentences.
No matter who your audience is, they will appreciate your ability to write using plain language. This is a key skill in any professional setting. Plain language writing—and speaking—will help you to get your message across clearly and concisely. This chapter will introduce you to the principles of plain language and allow you to practise them.
Principle 1: Use Active Voice
To communicate professionally, you need to know when and how to use either active or passive voice. Although most contexts prefer the active voice, the passive voice may be the best choice in certain situations. Generally, though, passive voice tends to be awkward, vague, wordy, and a grammatical construct you should avoid in most cases.
Recognizing Active and Passive Voice
To use active voice, make the noun that performs the action the subject of the sentence and pair it directly with an action verb.
Read these two sentences:
Matt Damon left Harvard in the late 1980s to start his acting career.
Matt Damon’s acting career was started in the late 1980s when he left Harvard.
In the first sentence, left is an action verb that is paired with the subject, Matt Damon. If you ask yourself, “Who or what left?” the answer is Matt Damon. Neither of the other two nouns in the sentence—Harvard and career—”left” anything.
Now look at the second sentence. The action verb is started. If you ask yourself, “Who or what started something?” the answer, again, is Matt Damon. But in this sentence, the writer placed career—not Matt Damon—in the subject position. When the doer of the action is not the subject, the sentence is in passive voice. In passive voice constructions, the doer of the action usually follows the word by as the indirect object of a prepositional phrase, and the action verb is typically partnered with a version of the verb to be.
The following sentences are in passive voice. For each sentence, identify
- the noun in the subject position,
- the form of the verb to be,
- the action verb, and
- the doer of the action.
Check Your Understanding
Decide whether each of the following sentences is active or passive.
Using Action Verbs to Make Sentences More Interesting
Two sentences can say the same thing but leave a different impression based on the choice of verb. Which of the following sentences gives you the most vivid mental picture?
- A bald eagle was overhead and now is low in the sky near me.
- A bald eagle soared overhead and then dove low, seemingly coming right at me.
Most of us would agree that sentence B paints a better picture.
Try to express yourself with action verbs instead of forms of the verb to be. Sometimes it is fine to use forms of the verb to be, such as is or are, but it is easy to overuse them (as in this sentence—twice). Overuse of these verbs will make your writing dull.
Read each of the following sentences and note the use of the verb to be. Think of a way to reword the sentence to make it more interesting by using an action verb before you expand to view the suggested revision.
A point of confusion that sometimes comes up when people discuss the passive voice is the use of expletive pronouns. A sentence with expletive pronouns often starts with “There is …” or “There are ….” Many people mistakenly think that expletive pronoun sentences are a form of passive voice, but they are not.
To understand the difference, please read the “Avoid Expletive Pronouns” section under Principle 5.
Using Action Verbs Alone to Avoid Passive Voice
Even though the passive voice might include an action verb, the action verb is not as strong as it could be, because of the sentence structure. The passive voice also causes unnecessary wordiness. Read the following sentences and think of a way to reword each using an action verb in active voice. Then look at the suggested revision for each case.
Writing in the Active Voice
Writing in active voice is easy once you understand the difference between active and passive voice. Make sure you always define who or what did what. If you use forms of the verb to be with your action verb, consider the reason for your choice. If you are writing in progressive tense (“Carrie is walking to my house”) or perfect progressive tense (“Melissa will have been married for four years by then”), you will need to use helping verbs, even in active voice.
Using Passive Voice
Sometimes passive voice is the best option. Consider the following acceptable uses of passive voice.
When you do not know who or what is responsible for the action:
Example: Our front-door lock was picked.
Rationale: If you do not know who picked the lock on your front door, you cannot say who did it. You could say a thief broke in, but that would be an assumption; you could, theoretically, find out that the lock was picked by a family member who had forgotten to take a key.
When you want to hide the person or thing responsible for the action, such as in a story:
Example: The basement was filled with a mysterious scraping sound.
Rationale: If you are writing a dramatic story, you might introduce a phenomenon without revealing the person or thing that caused it.
When the person or thing that performed the action is not important:
Example: The park was flooded all week.
Rationale: Although you would obviously know that the rainwater flooded the park, saying so would not be important.
When you do not want to place credit, responsibility, or blame:
Example: A mistake was made in the investigation that resulted in the wrong person being on trial.
Rationale: Even if you think you know who is responsible for a problem, you might not want to expose the person.
When you want to maintain the impression of objectivity:
Example: It was noted that only first-graders chose to eat the fruit.
Rationale: Research reports in certain academic disciplines attempt to remove the researcher from the results, to avoid saying, for example, “I noted that only first graders….”
When you want to avoid using a gendered construction, and pluralizing is not an option:
Example: If the password is forgotten by the user, a security question will be asked.
Rationale: This construction avoids the need for the cumbersome “his or her” (as in “the user forgets his or her password”).
Principle 2: Use Common Words Instead of Complex Words
Inappropriate word choices will get in the way of your message. For this reason, use language that is accurate and appropriate for the writing situation. Omit jargon (technical words and phrases common to a specific profession or discipline) and slang (invented words and phrases specific to a certain group of people), unless your audience and purpose call for such language. Avoid using outdated words and phrases, such as “Dial the number.” Be straightforward in your writing rather than using euphemism (a gentler, but sometimes inaccurate, way of saying something). Be clear about the level of formality each piece of writing needs, and adhere to that level.
Writing without Jargon or Slang
Jargon and slang both have their places. Using jargon is fine as long as you can safely assume your readers also know the jargon. For example, if you are a lawyer writing to others in the legal profession, using legal jargon is perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you are writing for people outside the legal profession, using legal jargon would most likely be confusing, and you should avoid it. Of course, lawyers must use legal jargon in papers they prepare for customers. However, those papers are designed to navigate within the legal system and may not be clear to readers outside of this demographic.
Jargon: I need to hammer out this report by tomorrow.
Alternative: I need to type up this report by tomorrow.
Euphemism: My uncle is vertically challenged.
Alternative: My uncle is only five feet tall.
Principle 3: Use a Positive Tone When Possible
Unless there is a specific reason not to, use positive language wherever you can. Positive language benefits your writing in two ways. First, it creates a positive tone, and your writing is more likely to be well-received. Second, it clarifies your meaning, as positive statements are more concise. Take a look at the following negatively worded sentences and then their positive counterparts, below.
Negative: Your car will not be ready for collection until Friday.
Positive: Your car will be ready for collection on Friday.
Negative: You did not complete the exam.
Positive: You will need to complete the exam.
Negative: Your holiday time is not approved until your manager clears it.
Positive: Your holiday time will be approved when your manager clears it.
Avoid using multiple negatives in one sentence, as this will make your sentence difficult to understand. When readers encounter more than one negative construct in a sentence, their brains have to do more cognitive work to decipher the meaning; multiple negatives can create convoluted sentences that bog the reader down.
Negative: A decision will not be made unless all board members agree.
Positive: A decision will be made when all board members agree.
Negative: The event cannot be scheduled without a venue.
Positive: The event can be scheduled when a venue has been booked.
Principle 4: Write for Your Reader
When you write for your readers and speak to an audience, you have to consider who they are and what they need to know. When readers know that you are concerned with their needs, they are more likely to be receptive to your message, and will be more likely to:
- take the action you are asking them to and
- focus on important details.
Your message will mean more to your reader if they get the impression that it was written directly to them. When you sit down to write, either for a paper or a presentation, consider the audience analysis tool presented earlier in this module.
Then try to answer these questions in your writing with user-friendly language. Speaking directly to the audience using you-oriented language helps to personalize the message and make it easier to understand. Using the second-person pronoun you tells your reader that the message is intended for them. You might be inclined to use he, she, or they instead, but those terms are not as direct or personal. Using the pronoun you makes the message feel relevant.
Consider the following sentences:
- Employees arriving at the Sands Hotel for the team’s day out should assemble in the lobby.
- When you arrive at the Sands Hotel for the team’s day out, please join us in the lobby.
Which one is more inviting? Most people will find the second sentence more friendly and inviting because it addresses the reader directly.
Organize Your Document to Meet Your Readers’ Needs
When you write, ask yourself, “Why would someone read this message?” Often, it is because the reader needs a question answered. What do they need to know to prepare for the upcoming meeting, for example, or what new company policies do they need to abide by? Think about the questions your readers will ask and then organize your document to answer them.
Principle 5: Keep Words and Sentence Short (Conciseness)
It is easy to let your sentences become cluttered with words that do not add value to your message. Improve cluttered sentences by eliminating repetitive ideas, removing repeated words, and editing to eliminate unnecessary words.
Eliminating Repetitive Ideas
Unless you are providing definitions on purpose, stating one idea twice in a single sentence is redundant. Read each example below and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove repetitive phrasing. Then look at the suggested revision.
Original: Use a very heavy skillet made of cast iron to bake an extra-juicy meatloaf.
Revision: Use a cast-iron skillet to bake a juicy meatloaf.
Original: Joe thought to himself, I think I’ll make caramelized grilled salmon tonight.
Revision: Joe thought, I think I’ll make caramelized grilled salmon tonight.
Removing Repeated Words
As a general rule, you should try not to repeat a word within a sentence. Sometimes you simply need to choose a different word. But often you can actually remove repeated words. Read this example and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove a repeated word that adds wordiness. Then check out the revision below the sentence.
Original: The student who won the cooking contest is a very talented and ambitious student.
Revision: The student who won the cooking contest is very talented and ambitious.
Rewording to Eliminate Unnecessary Words
If a sentence has words that are not necessary to carry the meaning, those words are unneeded and can be removed. Read each example and think about how you could revise the sentence; then check out the suggested revisions.
Original: Andy has the ability to make the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
Revision: Andy makes the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
Original: For his part in the cooking class group project, Malik was responsible for making the mustard reduction sauce.
Revision: Malik made the mustard reduction sauce for his cooking class group project.
Avoid Expletive Pronouns (Most of the Time)
Many people create needlessly wordy sentences using expletive pronouns, which often take the form of “There is …” or “There are ….”
Now, if you remember, pronouns (e.g., I, you, he, she, they, this, that, who, etc.) are words that we use to replace nouns (i.e., people, places, things), and there are many types of pronouns (e.g., personal, relative, demonstrative, etc.). However, expletive pronouns are different from other pronouns because unlike most pronouns, they do not stand for a person, thing, or place; they are called expletives because they have no “value.” Sometimes you will see expletive pronouns at the beginning of a sentence, sometimes at the end. Look at the following expletive constructs:
- There are a lot of reading assignments in this class.
- I can’t believe how many reading assignments there are!
Note: These two examples are not necessarily bad examples of using expletive pronouns. We included them to help you first understand what expletive pronouns are so you can recognize them.
The main reason we should generally avoid writing with expletive pronouns is that they often cause us to use more words in the rest of the sentence than we have to. Also, the empty words at the beginning tend to shift the more important subject matter toward the end of the sentence. The above sentences are not that bad, but at least they are simple enough to help you understand what expletive pronouns are. Here are some more examples of expletive pronouns, along with better alternatives.
Original: There are some people who love to cause trouble.
Revision: Some people love to cause trouble.
Original: There are some things that are just not worth waiting for.
Revision: Some things are just not worth waiting for.
Original: There is a person I know who can help you fix your computer.
Revision: I know a person who can help you fix your computer
While not all instances of expletive pronouns are bad, writing sentences with expletives seems to be habit forming. It can lead to trouble when you are explaining more complex ideas, because you end up having to use additional strings of phrases to explain what you want your reader to understand. Wordy sentences, such as those with expletive pronouns, can tax the reader’s mind.
Original: There is a button you need to press that is red and says STOP.
Revision: You need to press the red STOP button. Or: Press the red STOP button.
Of course, most rules and guideline have exceptions, and expletive pronouns are no different. In many cases common expressions, particularly if they are short, are not worth revising—especially in live communications such as presentations, lectures, and speeches.
There is no place I’d rather be.
There are good days, and there are bad days.
There is no way around this.
How many ways are there to solve this puzzle?
The above sentences use expletive pronouns but are fine because they are short and easy on the reader’s mind. In fact, revising them would make for longer, more convoluted sentences!
So when you find yourself using expletives, always ask yourself if omitting and rewriting would give your reader a clearer, more direct, less wordy sentence. Can I communicate the same message using fewer words without taking away from the meaning I want to convey or the tone I want to create? Practise evaluating your own writing and playing with alternative ways to say the same thing.
Do not confuse expletive pronouns with passive voice (as also noted briefly in Principle 1: Use the Active Voice). Both expletive sentences and passive voice use forms of the verb to be, often result in wordiness, and sometimes obscure important information, but they are not the same thing grammatically. The following example should help to clear up any mix-up between the two.
The following sentence uses passive voice:
- A few people can be called upon to help you.
It is passive because the subject of the sentence (people) are not the doers of the verb called. The active agent who will be “calling” is missing. Are you to call upon these people, or will someone else call upon them?
But the following example uses an expletive pronoun and is not in passive voice, because it has an active agent (you) doing the “calling”:
- There are a few people you can call upon to help you.
But even though passive voice and expletive constructs are not the same, it is possible—but rarely advisable—to write a sentence that uses both!
- There are a few people who can be called upon to help you.
The active agent doing the “calling” is, once again, missing; and the sentence starts with the expletive “There are.” What a convoluted sentence!
A better sentence that uses neither passive voice nor expletive pronouns would be:
- You can call upon a few people to help you.
Ah! Much better!
In this chapter, you have recognized plain language as a way to get your message across clearly and concisely when writing and speaking. You have identified five principles of plain-language writing: use active voice, use common words instead of complex words, use a positive tone when possible, write for your reader, and keep words and sentences short. You should now be ready to get more practice using the questions in this chapter, or move on to the next topic.
Key Takeaways and Check In
- Write using the active voice to make sentences more interesting.
- Confine use of jargon to situations where your audience recognizes it. Remove slang and euphemisms from professional writing.
- Use positive instead of negative tone.
- Examine the subject matter, audience, and purpose to determine the level of formality for your writing or presentation.
- State ideas only once within a single sentence.
Aim to achieve 100% on these final, check in questions. Good luck!
Further Readings and Attribution
- Five-step checklist to write better. Center for Plain Language. http://centerforplainlanguage.org/5-steps-to-plain-language/
Attribution Statement (Plain Language)
This chapter is a remix containing content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including the following:
- Original content contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license
- Original content contributed by Vesna Mirkovich, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license
- Content created by Anonymous for Writing in Active Voice and Uses of Passive Voice, in Writers’ Handbook, previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s20-02-writing-in-active-voice-and-us.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Content created by Anonymous for Controlling Wordiness and Writing Concisely, in Management Principles, previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s21-01-controlling-wordiness-and-writ.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Content created by Anonymous for Using Appropriate Language, in Management Principles previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s21-02-using-appropriate-language.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Content created by Anonymous for Choosing Precise Wording, in Management Principles previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s21-03-choosing-precise-wording.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
Check Your Understandings
- Original assessment items contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license
- Exercises created by Anonymous for Writing in Active Voice and Uses of Passive Voice, in Writers’ Handbook, previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s20-02-writing-in-active-voice-and-us.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Exercises created by Anonymous for Controlling Wordiness and Writing Concisely, in Management Principles, previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s21-01-controlling-wordiness-and-writ.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Assessment items created by The Saylor Foundation for a Saylor.org course BUS210: Corporate Communication, previously shared at https://www.oercommons.org/courses/business-administration-corporate-communication-unit-2-quiz under a CC BY 3.0 US license.
- Assessment items created by The Saylor Foundation for a Saylor.org course BUS210: Corporate Communication, previously shared at https://www.oercommons.org/courses/business-administration-corporate-communication-unit-4-quiz under a CC BY 3.0 US license.