Plain Language: What is Plain Language?

AuthorPettitt, Dave

"A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information" --International Plain Language Working Group (IPLWG) A communication in plain language can be a no-parking sign, insurance form, letter or even complex legislation. Plain language is everywhere. It is not limited to the legal world. Healthcare professionals need plain language to make sure their patients understand and are following their treatment plans. Insurance companies need plain language to make sure their insured persons provide the correct information during usually difficult times. Drivers in a city need to know the rules of the road. Everyone needs to understand the laws or other rules that affect them.

The above definition focuses on three elements of plain language: wording, structure and design. We will discuss each of these elements below.


Wording is key to plain language writing. Word choice is more than choosing the shortest and simplest words. When choosing words, we need to take into account the context of the word, as words affect the words around them. Words can be sneaky sometimes and mean different things in different regions. Just to be difficult, they can sound the same (homonyms) but mean something else. Then there are all the words that seem to mean the same thing (synonyms). Once you have chosen your word, you need to decide if it is necessary. Unnecessary and repetitive words should be removed from the communication. Too many words will complicate the communication, and using too few words leads to only partial understanding.


The structure of the communication is how you control the context of the words. The structure defines the purpose of the communication. A contract and a street sign have much different purposes and structures. Clear and meaningful headings and subheadings help the reader understand the...

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