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Principles of Plain Language. APHA May 9 th , 2013 Hot Springs, Arkansas * Some Content Adapted from NIH Resources. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. 
 Leonardo da Vinci

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Principles of plain language

Principles of Plain Language


May 9th, 2013

Hot Springs, Arkansas

* Some Content Adapted from NIH Resources

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. 

Leonardo da Vinci

Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage-to move in the opposite direction. 
Albert Einstein

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. 
Thomas Jefferson

I love words but I don't like strange ones. You don't understand them and they don't understand you. Old words is like old friends, you know 'em the minute you see 'em. 
Will Rogers

Men of few words are the best men. 
William Shakespeare

Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph. 
I never write "metropolis" for seven cents when I can write "city" and get paid the same. 
As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out. 

Mark Twain

Today’s Main Learning Objectives

1)      Define the concept of Plain Language as related to minority populations in Arkansas

2)       Describe three principles of Plain Language that can be used to improved communication

Plain Language as related to minority populations in Arkansas

In Arkansas...

298,000 adults function at below basic literacy skills.  19% of adults have less than a high school diploma.

Arkansas Immigrants

56% of immigrants in Arkansas have limited English Proficiency

73% of foreign born adults in Arkansas read below or a a basic level

48% of immigrants in Arkansas have no earned a high school diploma

Health literacy is particularly pertinent for cancer patients and the elderly, who may have hearing or vision problems that further complicate communication.

Cancer patients are bombarded with big terminology and medical information that they may not understand, so they return asking the same questions.

Low health literacy has the potential to negatively impact individuals with cancer and other chronic illness who are in a rehabilitation setting in terms of health and well-being.

Low health literacy can negatively impact issues such as self-management of cancer and other chronic illness and medication adherence.

This problem is possibly compounded if the individual is from a rural community, transplanted to a metropolitan inpatient rehabilitation setting and then sent back to their rural community.

It is important to understand how low health literacy interacts with the individual in their complex social setting, including family, health care setting and home community with the goal of reducing potential health disparities among this population.

Literacy skills are a stronger predictor of an individual’s health status than age, income, employment status, education level, or racial/ethnic group.

Limited health literacy increases the disparity in health care access among exceptionally vulnerable populations (such as racial/ethnic minorities and the elderly).

What is plain language
What is plain language?

Communication that your audience or readers can understand the first timethey hear or read it.

What are the main elements of plain language
What are the main elements of plain language?

  • Logical organization

  • The active voice

  • Common, everyday words

  • Short sentences

  • “You” and other pronouns

  • Lists and tables

  • Easy-to-read design features


Plain writing act of 2010
Plain Writing Act of 2010

Requires executive agencies to use plain language in documents by October 13, 2011

  • In all communications with general public – except regulations.

Identify your audience
Identify your audience

  • Think of why the user needs to read your document

  • Keep in mind the average user's level of technical expertise

  • Write to everyone who is interested, not just to experts (focus on the 90 percent of readers in the middle of the spectrum)

  • Even an expert will prefer a clearly written document

Organize to serve the reader
Organize to serve the reader

  • Anticipate questions an informed reader is likely to ask

  • Organize writing to answer questions in the order the reader will ask them

Use headings
Use headings

  • Allow the reader to quickly find relevant information

  • Break up the information

  • Increase blank space on the page

  • Informative headings help the reader navigate the document

Use short paragraphs
Use short paragraphs

  • Limit a paragraph to one subject or step

  • Smaller “bites” of info are easier to digest

  • Aim for no more than 7 lines

Use short sentences
Use short sentences

  • Treat only one subject in each sentence

  • Avoid complexity and confusion

  • Aim for 20 words per sentence or fewer

Using pronouns
Using pronouns


  • Speak directly to readers

  • Make your writing relevant to readers

  • Require less translation from your readers

  • Eliminate words

Using pronouns1
Using pronouns

  • Use “we” to refer to your agency

  • Use “you” for the reader

  • If you are using Q&A format, use “I” in the questions and “you” in the text

When pronouns don t work
When Pronouns Don’t Work

  • If you’re addressing more than one audience

  • If you refer readers to more than one office within your organization

Use active not passive voice
Use active, not passive voice

  • Active voice is more clear, concise and direct

  • Passive is a characteristic of bureaucratese

  • “Mistakes were made.”

Hidden verbs

Conduct an analysis

Present a report

Do an assessment

Provide assistance

Came to the conclusion of






Hidden Verbs

Use consistent terms
Use consistent terms

  • Avoid “Shall.” It is ambiguous and is not used in everyday speech

  • Use “must” for an obligation

  • Use “must not” for a prohibition

  • Use “may” for a discretionary action

  • Use “should” for a recommendation

Bryan a garner on shall
Bryan A. Garner on “Shall”

In just about every jurisdiction, courts have held that “shall” can mean not just “must”and “may,” but also “will”and “is.” The [U.S. Supreme] Court has [in various decisions]:

  • Held that a legislative amendment from “shall” to “may” had no substantive effect

  • Held that “shall” means “must” for existing rights, but that it need not be construed as mandatory when a new right is created

  • Acknowledged that, “legal writers sometimes misuse ‘shall’ to mean ‘should,’ ‘will,’ or even ‘may.’ ”

Don t sound so bureaucratic
Don’t sound so bureaucratic

  • Limit jargon and acronyms

  • Contractions aren’t bad

  • Use everyday words

Two kinds of jargon
Two kinds of jargon

  • Necessary technical terms

  • Example:Habeas corpus, plaintiff

  • Obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words

  • Example: Hereby, Wherefore, ab initio

Limiting acronyms abbreviations
Limiting acronyms/abbreviations

  • Use “we” for the agency

  • Don’t use acronyms/abbreviations for infrequent phrases

  • Try another style (the Council)

  • Make them pronounceable


Use everyday words






in the event that





begin, start

show, prove



send, give

end, cancel

Use everyday words

Use lists
Use lists


  • Make it easy for the reader to identify all items or steps in a process,

  • Add blank space for easy reading, and

  • Help the reader see the structure of your document.

Why use tables
Why use tables?


  • Save words

  • Make it easy to locate specific provisions

  • Make it easy to take in complex material at a glance

  • Make your logic and structure clear

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

upon a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams