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Introduction to Plain Language

Introduction to Plain Language

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Introduction to Plain Language

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  1. Introduction toPlain Language

  2. Presentation Outline • Why use Plain Language? • What is Plain Language? • Where can I get help with Plain Language?

  3. Why use Plain Language? We’re all busy people. We don’t want to waste a lot of time trying to translate difficult, wordy documents.

  4. Acceptance by the bank of payments in arrears shall not constitute a waiver of or otherwise affect any acceleration payment hereunder or other right or remedy exercisable hereunder. No failure or delay on the part of the bank in exercising, and no failure to file or otherwise perfect or enforce the Bank’s security in or with respect to any collateral, shall operate as a waiver of any right or remedy hereunder or release any of the undersigned, and the obligations of the undersigned may be extended or waived by the bank, contract or other agreement evidencing or relating to any obligation or collateral may be amended and any collateral exchanged, surrendered, or otherwise dealt with in accordance with any agreement relevant thereto, all without affecting the liability of any of the undersigned.

  5. Irregular Payments You can accept late payments or partial payments, even though they are marked “payment in full,” without losing any of your rights under this note.

  6. What happens if users don’t understand your documents? You may have to… • Answer phone calls • Write explanatory letters • Write an explanatory document • Litigate

  7. Plain language means fewer calls from customers

  8. Less time for users to get an answer (in minutes)

  9. Fewer errors and better compliance

  10. What is Plain Language?

  11. A document is in plain language if users can - • Find what they need • Understand what they find • Use what they find to meet their needs

  12. What are the basic elements of plain language? • Logical organization with the reader in mind • “You” and other pronouns • Active voice • Short sentences • Common, everyday words • Easy-to-read design features

  13. Organize for your audience Organize your information the way the audience needs or expects it. Often, a chronological organization works best.

  14. Identify your audience • Why does the reader need to read document? • What is average user expertise? • Write to everyone interested, not just experts. • No one wants to work to understand your document.

  15. Organize to serve the reader • Identify with your average reader • Anticipate likely questions • Organize document to answer questions in the order and language readers will ask them • Provide useful headings

  16. Informative headings help the reader navigate the document Questions are often the best headings, especially in documents that readers come to with questions, such as regulations.

  17. Agency Grant Program 1.1 What grants are available? 1.2 Am I eligible? 1.3 How should I apply?

  18. Use pronouns • Pronouns pull readers into a document and make it relevant to them • Reader needs to do less “translation” • Pronouns let you eliminate lots of words

  19. How do you use pronouns? • Refer to your organization as “we” • Refer to the reader as “you” in the text and as “I” in questions • Define “we” and “you” in the definitions section or in the text

  20. Without pronouns To establish eligibility for a grant, an applicant must show that the applicant is an Indian and that the present housing of the applicant is substandard and inadequate. 28 words

  21. With Pronouns To establish eligibility for a grant, you must show that you are an Indian and that your present housing is substandard and inadequate. 23 words

  22. Avoid Passive Voice The person doing the action follows the verb. A form of the verb “to be” is combined with the past participle of another verb. The frog was swallowed by Fred.

  23. Can disguise who does what: A frog was swallowed. Passive Voice Active Voice Makes it clear who does what: Fred swallowed a frog.

  24. Can be awkward: Consultation from respondents was obtained to determine the estimated burden. Passive Voice Active Voice Is more direct: We consulted with respondents to determine the estimated burden.

  25. Is often longer: The application must be completed by the applicant and received by the financial office by June 1st. 17 words Passive Voice Active Voice Cuts down the number of words: We must receive your application by June 1st. 8 words

  26. Use short sections and paragraphs • Shorter units of text are more manageable, less intimidating • White space and headings are clues to what’s important

  27. Use short sentences • Short sentences avoid confusion • Treat only one subject in each sentence • Average sentence length: 20 words • Maximum sentence length: 40 words

  28. Use Use Help Method Needs Limits Issue Not Utilize Facilitate Methodology Necessitates Parameters Promulgate Use common words

  29. Use “must” Instead of “shall” • Use “must” for obligation • Use “must not” for prohibitions • “Shall” is ambiguous • “Shall” is not a common everyday word

  30. Avoid confusing words and constructions Avoid: • Using undefined abbreviations • Using two different terms for the same thing (such as car, vehicle, auto) • Using the same term for different things

  31. Giving a word an obscure meaning (defining “car” to include trucks) • Using legal or technical jargon • Using strings of nouns (“surface water quality protection rules”)

  32. Place words carefully • Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs • Put modifiers next to words they modify • Put exceptions and long conditions after the main clause

  33. Does word placement matter? Yesterday a mad dog bit five men in the north end. Yesterday, in the north end, a mad dog bit five men.

  34. Word placement cont’d We will send you copies of any comments we receive after the comment period closes. After the comment period closes, we will send you copies of any comments we receive.

  35. Design your document for easy reading • White space makes a document easier to read • Vertical lists and tables aid readability and add white space

  36. Use vertical lists Vertical lists - • Make it easy for the reader to identify all the items or steps in a process • Add blank space for easy reading • Help your reader see the structure of your document

  37. Change this long sentence The student applicant should submit an official copy of his or her transcript, two letters of recommendation from professors, a statement of financial need, and a short biographical statement to our grants office by April 15.

  38. Into a list To apply, submit the following items to our grants office by April 15: • An official copy of your transcript • Two letters of recommendation from professors; • A statement of financial need; and • A short biographical statement.

  39. Tables • Make it easy to take in complex material at a glance • Make it easy to locate specific provisions • Save words • Make your logic and structure clear

  40. We must receive your completed application form on or before the 15th day of the second month following the month you are reporting if you do not submit your application electronically or the 25th day of the second month following the month you are reporting if you submit your application electronically.

  41. If you write in Plain Language You will: • Write more effectively and with more impact • Get better results • Provide better customer service

  42. Where to Get Help • Get a free half day introduction to plain language • Come to our monthly meetings • Visit our Web Site ( • For more information, email

  43. Where to Get Help • Visit our Web Site (