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Simply put, plain language is a style of writing that puts the intended reader first. Plain language allows the reader to locate, understand, and act on the information presented. Plain language looks at the whole message from the reader’s perspective, including wording, structure, and design elements.
Plain language is also known as clear language. Using plain language can help workplaces communicate their safe work procedures or policies more effectively. It can help make sure that directions are followed, and provide information in a manner that is easily understood.
Documents written in plain language should be clear, concise, well organized, and easily convey the message to the reader.
Plain language is:
Plain language is not:
Everyone has the right to the knowledge that helps them perform their work in a safe manner, or helps them remain healthy. It is important that people understand what they are reading, whether they are reading a safety document at work, or filling out a medical form for their doctor.
When a reader does not understand the information, they are not making informed decisions. This gap creates communication barriers and contributes to frustration, errors, and misunderstandings. Adopting plain language principles allows information to be easily understood, acted on, and is inclusive to all literacy levels.
Plain language benefits everyone, including:
Workplaces should use plain language principles to communicate information, especially when it affects the health and safety of the worker.
There may be a communication problem in your workplace if:
Workplaces should incorporate and encourage the use of plain language by:
Types of documents include, but are not limited to:
Before writing, ask yourself the following questions:
Once you have determined your audience and purpose for writing, begin to form a blueprint. Some authors find it helps to get all of the ideas written out, then review and choose the ones most relevant to your message and purpose.
A helpful tool when creating a plain language blueprint is to apply the inverted triangle method as outlined by the US Immigration department ’s online video.
When you are ready to write:
Information design uses specific methods to organize information clearly. Plain language is not only about the words used in a document, but it also includes the design and layout of the document.
Information design includes, but is not limited to:
[Source: TERMIUM Plus® Writing Tips Plus, 2022]
Remember, information design should be used to make it easier for your reader to locate, understand and act. It is not meant to make the document look more attractive.
Testing your document is an important step to ensure your document is meeting the plain language criteria. Can the reader locate, understand, and act easily using the information presented?
Ask people who are part of the target audience to read through the document. Ask the readers to provide the following feedback:
Conduct a readability test. There are many grammar and readability tools available, such as the SMOG readability formula (SMOG: Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) or the Flesch-Kincad grade level index which is available with some word processing software packages (i.e., Mircosoft Word).
For more information on writing in plain language, the Treasury Board of Canada offers a publication titled Content Style Guide.