in plain English

Plain English

Plain English (sometimes referred to more broadly as plain language) is a communication style that focuses on considering the audience's needs when writing. It recommends avoiding unnecessary words and avoiding jargon, technical terms, and long and ambiguous sentences.


Use Subject-Verb-Object construction by default.
For example, instead of this: To update the address lists (object) may (verb) be your primary concern (subject), you should use this: Your primary concern (subject) may be (verb) to update' the address lists (object).Avoid vocabulary that a good portion of your audience will stumble over. This applies especially to jargon when the idea can be expressed as well using conventional language.Use verbs instead of "nounisms."
A nounism is a verb rendered in its nominal form. For example, use the verb "introduce" instead of "introduction." Compare: "Jim introduced the speaker" to "Jim gave an introduction of the speaker."Use active voice instead of passive.
For example, use "The police stopped the suspect" instead of "The suspect was stopped by the police." Sometimes the passive hides who the agent is, which can reduce clarity. For example, "Thirty houses were visited in three weeks." Unless you don't know who visited the houses, or it's completely irrelevant, the active is better: "The family visited thirty houses in three weeks."Avoid overly long sentences.
By the time you get to the end of some sentences, you have forgotten what came earlier in the sentence. The following sentence combines two poor choices - long, complicated words that serve no purpose, and excessive length: "If there exist any points on which you require explanation or further explication, we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required via telephone." The following is better: "If you have any questions, please call us."Avoid excessive punctuation.
Consider putting the parts of your sentence in the proper order so as to simplify matters and avoid hyphenations and excessive punctuation. Such trends are merely weighing down the language and making it less and less readable. You do not need commas where conjunctions already fill the designated role. And so forth. Poorly written passages can often be weeded of 90% of their punctuation with improved readability as the only tangible difference.


Before the 20th century, English-language writers commonly used long sentences and a very complicated style. In some other European languages, such as German, the use of long sentences was even more extensive; for example, the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel was known for writing sentences that easily occupied three pages. It is not clear where this tradition came from, but it may have originated with classical Latin, in which such a style of prose was common.

Important Influences

In the late 19th century, several writers (e.g. Mark Twain) demonstrated that plain English could be elegant when executed properly.

During the 1920s, such style guides as William Strunk Jr.'s The Elements of Style actively promoted the idea of writing in plain English. However, it took over fifty years for Strunk's ideas to become widely accepted.

Plain English finally penetrated the fields of law and government during the 1970s, as shown by the passage of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1976, and the popularity of books like Plain English for Lawyers, 1979 (ISBN 978-0890899946).


A sentence written using plain English may be aesthetically pleasing, even if its style is not complicated and it does not incorporate irrelevance. Everything in the sentence should work towards communicating to the reader what the writer intended. Everything else should be deleted or streamlined. Plain English is efficient but not brutally so; in fact, it can be kinder to the reader by sparing confusion and leaving out unnecessary words.

A criticism, however, is that the requirement to use a limited vocabulary actually means that what is communicated is not, in fact, what was intended. This is especially the case in times of reducing literacy, and simplified language skills.

See also



  • Wydick, Richard C. (1979) Plain English for Lawyers Carolina Academic Press, ISBN 1-59460-151-8 (paperback 5th ed., 2005)
  • Rook, Fern Slaying the English Jargon (1992) Society for Technical Communication, ISBN 0-914548-71-9
  • Williams, Joseph M. Style, Toward Clarity and Grace (1995) University Of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-89915-2

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