Quick tips on using plain language

Why all the fuss about plain language?

In South Africa you need to use ‘plain language’ when dealing with your customers, says Section 22 of the Consumer Protection Act. There is specific focus on written communication with consumers. Internationally, it makes sense to use simple language so that people (from different countries) understand you correctly. It’s a case of ‘No plain – much pain’. J

How plain do you need to go? 

The language needs to be simple enough for the average adult to understand quickly and easily.

What ‘written communication’ are we talking about here?

Any document that the customer will be reading as part of their relationship with you. This includes:

  • Terms and conditions
  • Applications forms and sale and rental agreements
  • Marketing material; including the information on your website or blog
  • Press releases
  • Warranties
  • Promotional material and advertisements
  • Warnings and labels

What is plain language? 

Plain language writing sets out important information in a way that an average person can understand quickly and easily. It uses straightforward words and sentence structure to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

Before you start 

Make sure you know the following:

  • Who is your reader? You can customise your message to suit their needs. Consider your reader’s background, experience, education, and reading levels.
  • Why are you writing this document? It is easy to determine whether you have met the objective if it is clearly defined from the start.
  • What do you want to say? Focus on what the reader wants and needs to know. Have the most important information early in the document to capture your reader’s attention.
  • What medium will be used? When writing for digital, for example for mobile phones, keep language super simple and super short.

Quick tips

  • Write the way you speak and speak directly to your reader. Read what you have written aloud to hear how it sounds. Do people talk that way?
  • Remember that the reader cannot ask questions. Try to answer possible questions before they arise.
  • Use proper grammar, short sentences.
  • Write in the active voice: the boy kicks the ball. NOT in passive voice: The ball is kicked by the boy.
  • Write in a positive tone. Readers respond better to what they can and should do rather than being told what they cannot or should not be doing.
  • Don’t say more than you have to, but get to the point quickly.

* Avoid all caps. Words in lower case are more easily recognised.

* The way the information is presented on the page can be just as important as the words. Large blocks of grey text are dull and can be intimidating to some readers.

* Use several short, simple, everyday words instead of one single complicated word.

Plain Language Sample

Instead of:                                                                 Use:  

accomplish………………………………………………………do

adequate number of…………………………………………enough

advance planning…………………………………………….planning

after this is accomplished………………………………….then

ahead of schedule……………………………………………..early

approximately…………………………………………………..about

ascertain…………………………………………………………..find out

at an early date………………………………………………….soon

attempt ……………………………………………………………try

at this point in time……………………………………………now

by means of ………………………………………………………by

carry out an examination of…………………………………examine

consequently………………………………………………………so

despite ………………………………………………………………although

disseminate………………………………………………………..send out, distribute

due to the fact …………………………………………………….because, since

during such time………………………………………………….while

endeavour……………………………………………………………try

excessive number of ……………………………………………..too many

facilitate……………………………………………………………….make easier, help

formulate……………………………………………………………..work out, devise, form

give consideration to……………………………………………..consider

held a meeting………………………………………………………met

initiative ……………………………………………………………..plan

in lieu of……………………………………………………………….instead of

in order to ……………………………………………………………to

in respect of………………………………………………………….for

in the absence of……………………………………………………without

in the event that…………………………………………………….if

in the majority of cases………………………………………….usually

in view of the fact………………………………………………….because, since

it is probable that………………………………………………….probably

it would appear that………………………………………………apparently

locality………………………………………………………………….place

notwithstanding the fact that………………………………….although

on the part of…………………………………………………………by

optimum……………………………………………………………….best, greatest, most

strategise……………………………………………………………….plan

subsequent to…………………………………………………………after

substantiate……………………………………………………………prove

take into consideration……………………………………………consider

under the provisions of……………………………………………under

utilise……………………………………………………………………use

until such time……………………………………………………….until

with a view to…………………………………………………………to

with regard to…………………………………………………………about

(Source: Guidelines from National Aboriginal Health Organisation) 


“Plain English”

A word about “plain English.” The phrase certainly shouldn’t connote drab and dreary language. Actually, plain English is typically quite interesting to read. It’s robust and direct—the opposite of gaudy, pretentious language. You achieve plain English when you use the simplest, most straightforward way of expressing an idea. You can still choose interesting words. But you’ll avoid fancy ones that have everyday replacements meaning precisely the same thing.

Bryan Garner, from Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, pp xiv