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Plain English

what it is and why you should use it

Plain English – what it is and why you should use it

© Dr Alan Hancock 2018

Plain English is a writing style that puts the reader first. It is clear, concise and structured for readability. So if you think that you need to use fancy words and complex structures in your workplace writing, think again. You will serve your reader better if you avoid ‘officialese’ in favour of straightforward language. That doesn’t mean you need to dumb things down—far from it. No matter what you are writing about, you can get your ideas on the page in plain English. Many organisations now recognise the importance of clear and straightforward writing by setting out the rules in their style guides. In 2010 the US government passed the Plain Writing Act. This requires federal agencies to write ‘clear Government communication that the public can understand and use’. And that is the approach that business organisations and government departments in Australia are increasingly adopting.

Here are two examples from a US Government website, before and after the move to Plain English in 2010. The meaning is exactly the same; the way it is expressed is very different. Thank you President Obama, for the Plain Writing Act.

How do you find this – want to read more?


“In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this subpart for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this subpart.”


Maybe you’d prefer to read this version:


“If you get payments from us and from a collateral source for the same expenses, you must pay us back the amount we paid you.”


And I wonder if you recognise this nursery rhyme, retold as an accident report? Sure, accident reports need to be clear and detailed – but they can still be written in Plain English.


Two young people answering to the names of Jack and Jill were observed ascending a minor prominence.

Their objective was the procurement of a receptacle of liquid state dihydrogen monoxide.

There was a falling event causing a fracture injury to Jack’s cranium.

Subsequent to this Jill was involved in a similar uncontrolled descent.


Whatever you are writing, ask yourself if you have put on a voice, rather than writing in straightforward language. Are you trying to impress a reader, rather than engage them? Are you simply writing in a style that matches what you normally read, rather than a style that is readable and clear? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then you won’t be using written language in the most effective way. And maybe you’d benefit from one of my Professional Writing workshops.


Alan Hancock has been teaching plain English for over 15 years.

He is known for lively and engaging presentations.