What is Plain English and why use it in Business Writing?

Plain English

Using Plain English means to use words that are familiar, clear and concise. It means employing a conversational tone and even, on occasion, personal pronouns such as ‘I, we and you’. These can be useful in business writing as they convey a more human image of the writer.

It is tedious and time consuming to read long, complicated documents with an unclear meaning or pompous language. Plain English helps your reader to understand what you are saying more quickly. It helps you build a better relationship with your reader.

Precise, small words will help you be more accurate in what you say. It is good to ask yourself if a word is the simplest one to reflect your meaning. For example, use:

  • help instead of assistance
  • a year instead of per annum
  • send instead of transmit

Don’t think you will impress your reader with your knowledge, or show your status within the company, by using large, complex words. It will just make your document harder to read. Choose familiar words over long, abstract or vague words. Remember that your reader will probably be time poor.

Also avoid slang. Not everyone was born, or learnt English, in Australia. Some people speak English as a second or third language and so have no idea what your slang means. Slang also looks unprofessional and can create a negative image.

When writing a technical document, some jargon and technical terms may need to be used. Keep them to a minimum, though. You do not want to clutter your document unnecessarily. You are not trying to impress them with your vocabulary.

Another helpful tip is to look at your sentence length. Short, sharp sentences are more readable. Ideally sentences should contain only one idea. This stops your ideas being buried in a long, rambling sentence. A good measurement is to keep your sentence length well under 25 words.

Padding means using extra words that are not necessary. Short sentences helps you avoid this. Padding doesn’t help your reader understand you or your ideas. It just makes your document look longer and more difficult to read. Remember the KISS principle: Keep It Short and Simple.

As mentioned earlier, where appropriate, adopt a personal tone by using ‘I, we and you’. This is more relational, sounds polite and is therefore more likely to produce a positive response. All of which you want.

Write as though you are talking to them. However, still give attention to your grammar so you do not look unprofessional. Reading your document out loud helps you hear the rhythm and tone. This way you will hear if the tone is conversational or awkward.

There are several readability indices you can use to help you measure the clarity of your document. They factor in sentence length as well as complexity of language. They cannot tell you if your writing is effective, but if it is readable that is a good beginning. These indices include the:

These all use a different method, but they all measure the sentence and word loading of the document. If you learn to use one of these methods, it will stay with you and create more awareness for you as a writer. You can do a writing course that includes plain English and one or more of these indices to help you learn to write more effectively.

In short, as with many aspects of life, more is not always better. In fact, less is often more. Using simple, clear and concise language can make your writing more appealing and more powerful.


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