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INTRODUCTION TO PLAIN LANGUAGE What is plain language? 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 What makes up plain language? Logical organization “You” and other pronouns The active voice

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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
what makes up plain language
What makes up plain language?
  • Logical organization
  • “You” and other pronouns
  • The active voice
  • Common, everyday words
  • Short sentences
  • Easy-to-read design features
what happens when users don t understand your document
What happens when users don’t understand your document?

You may have to

  • Answer phone calls
  • Write explanatory letters
  • Make an explanatory document
  • Litigate
identify your audience
Identify your audience
  • Think of why user needs to read document
  • Keep in mind average user’s level of technical expertise
  • Write to everyone who is interested, not just to experts
  • Even an expert doesn’t want to work to understand your document
organize to serve the reader
Organize to serve the reader

Identify with your average reader

  • Anticipate questions readers are likely to ask
  • Organize document to answer questions in the order that readers will ask them
use question and answer format
Use question-and-answer format
  • Vague, one-or two-word headings force user to work harder
  • Reader comes to document with questions
  • Using questions helps reader identify with rule
  • Q&A tells the reader that this is a different kind of document
  • Q&A is used in many existing rules and other documents (insurance policies, stock prospectuses)
be careful with question headings
Be careful with question headings

Don’t put the answer in the question

Don’t say

5.926 Am I eligible for benefits if I am the widow of a veteran, have never been remarried, and have no children

Say

5.926 When am I eligible for benefits?

use you and other pronouns to speak directly to readers
Use “you” and other pronouns to speak directly to readers

Why use pronouns

  • Pronouns pull readers into documents and make it relevant to them
  • The reader needs to do less “translation”
  • Pronouns eliminate lots of words
use you and other pronouns to speak directly to readers11
Use “you” and other pronouns to speak directly to readers
  • Use “we” to refer to your agency
  • To refer to the reader, use “you” in the text, use “I” in questions
  • Define “we” and “you” in definitions section or in the text
using pronouns
Using Pronouns

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

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

two ways to identify passive voice
Two ways to identify passive voice
  • The person doing the action follows the verb

Example: The man was fired by his boss.

  • The verb has two parts: the verb “to be” plus the past participle of another verb

Example: The house was rented by the man.

passive voice active voice
Can disguise who does

what:

The memo was written

Yesterday.

Makes it clear who does

what:

The Director wrote the

memo yesterday.

Passive Voice Active Voice
passive voice active voice15
Creates awkwardness:

Consultations from

respondents was

obtained to determine

the estimated burden.

Eliminates awkwardness:

We consulted with

respondents to determine

the estimated burden.

Passive Voice Active Voice
passive voice active voice16
Increases the number of words:

The application must be

completed by the

applicant and received

by the financial office at

the time designated by

that office.

Cuts down the number

of words:

We must receive your

completed application

by the deadline that we

establish.

Passive Voice Active Voice
use short sections and paragraphs
Use short sections and paragraphs
  • Use one subject in each section
  • More sections mean more “signposts” for readers
  • Shorter units of text are more manageable, less intimidating
  • Layout helps reader see the structure of your rule; white space and headings are clues to what’s important
use short sentences
Use Short Sentences
  • Short sentences avoid confusion
  • Treat only one subject in each sentence
  • Average sentence length: 20 words
  • Maximum sentence length: 40 words
  • Use your computer to count words
use no more than 2 or 3 levels of subordinate paragraphs
Use no more than 2 or 3 levels of subordinate paragraphs

Too many levels:

  • Confuse the reader
  • Result in lengthy citations

Example: 25 CFR 523.36(a)(1)(i)(A)

  • Obscure the main point
use must instead of shall to convey requirements
Use “must” instead of “shall” to convey requirements
  • Use “must” for obligation
  • Use “must not” for prohibitions
  • A “Shall” is ambiguous – can indicate future
  • “Shall” is not used in everyday speech
avoid confusing words and constructions
Avoid confusing words and constructions

Avoid –

  • Undefined abbreviations and acronyms
  • Using two different terms for same thing (don’t use car, vehicle, auto, and conveyance – choose one)
  • Giving an obscure meaning to a word (defining “car” to include trucks)
oxford union society rules
Oxford Union Society Rules

Any member introducing a dog into the

Society’s premises shall be liable to a fine of

one pound. Any animal leading a blind

person shall be deemed to be a cat.

avoid confusing words and constructions23
Avoid confusing words and constructions

Avoid –

  • Legal or technical jargon
  • Strings of nouns (surface water quality protection procedures)
  • Stilted, wordy language
what are they saying
What are they saying?

As with the progenitor of the scion, in such

similar manner it may occur with the scion.

Pulchritude does not penetrate below the

dermal plane.

Lithodial fragments ought not to be forcibly

projected by inhabitants of vitreous abodes

A perissodactyl ungulate may be propelled toward a body

of aqueous fluid, but such ungulate cannot be compelled or

forcibly induced to imbibe such fluid.

place words carefully
Place words carefully
  • Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs
  • Put conditionals such as “only” or “always” next to words they modify
  • Don’t misplace modifiers
  • Put exceptions and long conditions after the main clause, not before or in the middle
does word placement make a difference
Does word placement make a difference?

Yesterday a mad dog bit five men in the

north end.

We will publish a list of properties that

qualify for relief under this subpart each

October.

where do exceptions and qualifications belong
Where do exceptions and qualifications belong?

Upon request of an Indian tribe, the Secretary may

provide that the purchaser of the forest products

of such tribe, which are harvested under a timber

sale contract, permit, or other harvest sale

document, make advance deposits, or direct

payments of the gross proceeds of such forest

products, less any amounts segregated as forest

management deductions pursuant to § 163.25, into

accounts designated by such Indian tribe.

why use vertical lists
Why use vertical lists?

Vertical lists –

  • Make it easy for the reader to identify all items or steps in a process
  • Add blank space for easy reading
  • Help your reader to see the structure of your document
find the list in this sentence
Find the list in this sentence

You must submit a tribal resolution or other

document, including the date and place of

adoption and the result of any vote taken,

that certifies that you have adopted the

tribal revenue allocation plan according to

your governing documents, or absent such

documents, according to your usual

customs.

the items in your list must match the introductory language
The items in your list must match the introductory language

Each compact must contain:

  • Provisions required by the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994;
  • Are in compliance with other applicable Federal law;

and

  • Are consistent with this part.
why use tables
Why use tables?

Tables –

  • Make it easy to take in complex material at a glance
  • Make it easy to locate specific provisions
  • Save words
  • Make the logic and structure of your rule clear for the reader
find the table in this sentence
Find the table in this sentence

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.