In English, Please

When it comes to the written word as it relates to your business, the simpler, the better.
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4 min read

This story appears in the May 2001 issue of . Subscribe »


The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
The Securities and Exchange Commission's A Plain English Handbook (downloadable at

No matter what kind of business you start, eventually you find yourself writing-whether it's memos to staff, proposals to clients, reports to shareholders, letters to vendors or explanations to the city planning department. The best way to tackle this stack of paperwork? Above all, use simple language. "Plain language saves time and money," affirms Annetta Cheek, plain-language coordinator at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government in Washington, DC.

Yes, even the federal government, that bastion of verbal opacity, has jumped on the plain-language bandwagon. A 1998 Presidential Memorandum on Plain Language directed all government agencies to cut out bureaucratese and write their documents in plain English from now on. More than 30 states have also opted for plain language, with laws requiring that contracts be written in clear, consumer-friendly English.

Required or not, plain language is just good business. Clients appreciate proposals and contracts they can understand on the first read. "Your documents themselves become marketing tools," says Cheryl Stephens, co-founder of the Plain Language Consultants Network in Vancouver, British Columbia. "You can gain a competitive edge by providing customers with clear, meaningful information."

Your company benefits in other ways, too. Documents written in plain English stand up better in court. Best of all, you can save money: Take, for instance, FedEx, which reportedly saved at least $400,000 worth of employee time after incorporating plain language into its operations manual.

Implementing plain language isn't as tough as you may think. Here are some basic principles to get you started:

Organize your document. "Write and organize for the reader," advises Cheek. Don't make the reader skip around looking for information-arrange it in a logical order.

Avoid jargon and obscure words. As much as possible, steer clear of technical and legal terms, acronyms and abbreviations. Debbie Guyol, editor of the quarterly newsletter for the debtor-creditor section of the Oregon State Bar, asks, "Is 'prior to' a better way to say 'before'? I don't think so." When you have a choice between "dwelling," "domicile," "residence" and "house," choose "house."

Avoid wordiness. Use short sentences with active verbs. Says Cheek: "The two biggest problems with bureaucratic writing are passive verbs and long sentences. Average sentence length should be 20 words or fewer." People often add words without adding meaning. Instead of "when pricing arrangements have been agreed upon by both parties," write "when we agree on a price."

Write directly to the reader. When you write "you" instead of "the undersigned," "the employee," "borrower," or "party of the first part," you immediately engage your audience. Using "you" lets readers know you have considered their needs and are writing directly to them.

Make the page layout appealing. Nothing is more daunting to a reader than a page full of unbroken print. Your words look more inviting when surrounded by plenty of white space. Guyol suggests using headings and subheadings as an aid to reader understanding. Bulleted lists are also helpful. If people think a document looks manageable, they'll be more likely to read the whole thing carefully rather than skimming it or stopping after the first paragraph.

Think of how much you appreciate a well-written, concise document, and you'll likely begin to see the value of plain language. Follow these steps, and you'll see an even greater value in the long run.

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Plain Language Action Network
The Plain Language Association International

Rosemarie Ostler lives in Eugene, Oregon, and writes about language and language-related issues. Her articles have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Futurist and Oregon Quarterly, among others.

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