Using Plain and Inclusive Language for Effective Communication

Author: Veruska Anconitano, CEO & Co-Founder, Multilingual Inclusive Language ExpertAuthor information
Veruska
About the author
Veruska Anconitano
Veruska is a sociolinguist and a multilingual inclusive language expert. she works as a multilingual SEO and globalization consultant with brands wanting to enter non-english speaking brands. She's one of Inclusiviteasy's founder and a passionate advocate for equality and inclusivity.
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Effective communication is more important than ever. Whether in business, healthcare, legal, or public services, the ability to convey information clearly and concisely can significantly impact understanding and outcomes. That’s where plain language comes into play, and it’s why we cannot ignore its role in promoting language inclusivity. By stripping away jargon and complexity, plain language ensures that everyone, regardless of their background or literacy level, can access and understand important information. This inclusivity is vital in creating equitable and accessible communication for all.

This article aims to explore the concept of plain language, its benefits, and practical applications. Additionally, we’ll explore how plain language supports inclusivity, making information accessible to a broader audience.

Before you keep reading, have a look at our guide on what inclusive language is and why it is so important today.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language is a style of writing that ensures readers can understand the information the first time they read it. It focuses on using clear, straightforward language and a simple structure to convey messages effectively. This involves avoiding jargon, using common words, and breaking down complex ideas into easily digestible parts.

There are several linguistic theories and principles that support the use of plain language.

One of the most interesting is the Cognitive Load Theory, developed by John Sweller, suggesting that our working memory has limited capacity. When information is presented in a complex and convoluted manner, it increases the cognitive load, making it harder for people to process and understand the information. Plain language reduces cognitive load by presenting information clearly and concisely, making it easier to comprehend and retain.

Philosopher H.P. Grice suggested what it’s been called the Cooperative Principle, which outlines how effective communication is achieved in conversation. The principle is based on four maxims:

  • Maxim of Quantity: Provide the right amount of information – not too little, not too much.
  • Maxim of Quality: Be truthful and do not provide information that is false or unsupported by evidence.
  • Maxim of Relation: Be relevant, and say things that are pertinent to the discussion.
  • Maxim of Manner: Be clear, avoid ambiguity, and be orderly in your speech.

Plain language aligns well with these maxims, particularly the maxim of Manner, which emphasizes clarity and the avoidance of unnecessary complexity.

Lastly, functional linguistics, particularly the work of M.A.K. Halliday, emphasizes the purpose and function of language in communication. According to this theory, language should be functional and serve the needs of its users. Plain language embodies this principle by focusing on the practical function of communication, ensuring that the language used is effective and serves its intended purpose.

Key Characteristics of Plain Language

  • Clarity: Information is presented clearly, without ambiguity.
  • Simplicity: Use of simple, everyday words instead of complex or technical terms.
  • Conciseness: Eliminating unnecessary words and sticking to the point.
  • Organization: Information is logically organized, often with headings, subheadings, and lists to guide the reader.
  • Active Voice: Sentences are typically in the active voice, making them more direct and dynamic.
  • Audience-Focused: The writing considers the audience’s needs and context, ensuring that it is tailored to their level of understanding.

Historical Context

The plain language movement began to gain traction in the mid-20th century as a response to the overly complex and technical language commonly used in legal, governmental, and business documents. This movement has seen significant developments and milestones across various countries, emphasizing the global importance of clear and accessible communication.

Early Developments in the United Kingdom

One of the earliest and most influential advocates was British civil servant Sir Ernest Gowers, whose 1948 book, “Plain Words,” aimed to promote clear writing in the public sector. His work laid the foundation for the plain language movement in the UK and inspired subsequent efforts worldwide.

United States Initiatives

In the United States, the push for plain language gained momentum in the 1970s. President Nixon’s 1972 Executive Order 11649 required federal regulations to be written in “layman’s terms,” marking a significant step towards making government documents more accessible to the general public. This initiative was further strengthened in 2010 when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law, requiring federal agencies to use clear communication that the public can understand and use.

Canada’s Contribution

Canada has also been a leader in the plain language movement. In the 1980s, the Canadian government began implementing plain language guidelines to improve communication with the public. Organizations like the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN), founded in 1993, have played a crucial role in promoting plain language principles globally.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia and New Zealand have made significant strides in adopting plain language in both the public and private sectors. In Australia, the “Clarity” journal, first published in 1983, has been influential in promoting plain language in legal documents. New Zealand’s Legal Information Access Centre (LIAC) has been active in simplifying legal information for the public since the 1990s.

European Efforts

In Europe, the plain language movement has gained substantial support. Sweden, for instance, launched the “Klarspråk” initiative in the 1990s to promote clear writing in government documents. The European Commission has also endorsed plain language, encouraging member states to adopt clear communication practices to enhance transparency and accessibility.

The Importance of Plain Language

Plain language is not just a style of writing; it’s a fundamental approach to effective communication. By making information clear and accessible, plain language fosters better understanding, builds trust, saves time and money, and promotes inclusivity. This section explores the various benefits of plain language and its crucial role in different sectors.

Enhancing Understanding

Plain language improves comprehension by breaking down complex information into simple, digestible parts. When information is clear, readers can quickly grasp the intended message without confusion. This is especially important in fields like healthcare, where understanding medical instructions can directly impact patient outcomes.

Building Trust

Using plain language helps build trust between organizations and their audiences. When people feel that information is transparent and straightforward, they are more likely to trust the source. This trust is crucial in customer relationships, public communication, and legal contexts, where clarity and honesty are paramount.

Saving Time and Money

Clear communication saves both time and money by reducing misunderstandings and errors. When instructions, forms, and documents are easy to understand, there are fewer follow-up questions and mistakes. This efficiency benefits both the sender and the receiver, streamlining processes and improving overall productivity.

Increasing Accessibility

Plain language is a powerful tool for promoting inclusivity. Eliminating jargon and technical terms makes information accessible to everyone, including non-native speakers, people with cognitive disabilities, and those with varying literacy levels. This inclusivity ensures that all individuals access important information equally, fostering a more equitable society.

Principles of Plain Language

Plain language principles are essential guidelines for creating clear and effective communication. By adhering to these principles, writers can ensure their messages are easily understood by a broad audience.

Use Simple Words

One of the fundamental principles of plain language is to use simple, everyday words instead of complex or technical terms. This approach helps ensure that readers of all backgrounds and education levels can understand the information. For example, instead of using the word “utilize,” use “use.”

Write in Short Sentences

Short sentences are easier to read and comprehend than long, complex ones. Aim to keep sentences concise, ideally under 20 words. This makes the text more accessible and reduces the reader’s cognitive load. Breaking down long sentences into shorter ones can also help convey information more clearly.

Use Active Voice

Writing in an active voice makes sentences more direct and dynamic. Active-voice sentences follow a straightforward subject-verb-object structure, making them easier to understand. For example, instead of saying, “The report was reviewed by the team,” say, “The team reviewed the report.”

Avoid Jargon and Technical Terms

Jargon and technical terms can create barriers to understanding. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid using industry-specific language that might be unfamiliar to your audience. If you must use technical terms, provide clear definitions or explanations to ensure comprehension.

Be Concise

Conciseness is about eliminating unnecessary words and getting straight to the point. Avoid redundancy and filler words that do not add value to the message. Being concise makes the text shorter and sharper and more focused, making it easier for the reader to grasp the key points.

Practical Applications of Plain Language

Plain language can be applied in various fields to enhance communication and improve understanding. By implementing plain language principles, organizations and individuals can create documents that are accessible and effective.

Business Communication

In business, clear communication is crucial for success. Plain language can be applied to emails, reports, marketing materials, and customer service interactions to ensure that the message is understood the first time. For example, a plain customer service email might read: “Thank you for your feedback. We will resolve your issue within 24 hours” instead of “We appreciate your communication regarding the issue encountered and are working towards an expedient resolution timeframe of within 24 hours.”

Legal Documents

Legal documents are often criticized for being difficult to understand due to their complex language. Using plain language in contracts, terms and conditions, and legal notices can make these documents more accessible to the general public. For instance, instead of writing, “The party of the first part agrees to indemnify and hold harmless the party of the second part,” a plain language version might say, “You agree to protect us from any claims or lawsuits.”

Healthcare

In healthcare, clear communication can directly impact patient outcomes. Using plain language in medical forms, patient instructions, and informational brochures ensures that patients understand their treatment plans and health information. An example is changing “Administer one dose of acetaminophen PRN” to “Take one tablet of acetaminophen as needed for pain.”

Government and Public Services

Government agencies and public service organizations can benefit greatly from using plain language. Clear communication in policies, public notices, and official documents ensures that citizens can understand and comply with important information. For example, instead of a government notice saying, “All residents are required to evacuate the premises forthwith due to impending inclement weather conditions,” a plain language version would be, “Everyone must leave now because of the coming storm.”

Examples of Plain Language in Action

Plain language transforms complex, jargon-filled text into clear, concise, and accessible information. In this section, we will look at specific before-and-after examples in various fields, in English to demonstrate the power and effectiveness of plain language.

Before and After Examples in English

FieldBeforeAfter
Business Communication“We are in the process of reviewing your application and will notify you of our decision in due course.”“We are reviewing your application and will let you know our decision soon.”
Legal Documents“The party of the first part shall indemnify and hold harmless the party of the second part against any and all claims, damages, liabilities, and expenses arising out of or in connection with this agreement.”“You agree to protect us from any claims, damages, or costs related to this agreement.”
Healthcare“Administer one dose of acetaminophen PRN for mild to moderate pain.”“Take one tablet of acetaminophen as needed for pain.”
Government and Public Services“Pursuant to the provisions of the ordinance, all vehicles must be removed from the street forthwith to facilitate snow removal operations.”“Move your car off the street now so we can clear the snow.”

Tips for Implementing Plain and Inclusive Language

Implementing plain and inclusive language in your writing ensures that your message is clear, accessible, and respectful to all readers. Here are some practical tips to help you achieve this:

Know Your Audience

Understanding your audience is the first step to effective communication. Consider their background, knowledge level, and needs. Tailor your language to match their expectations and comprehension abilities.

  • Tip: Use surveys or feedback forms to gather information about your audience’s preferences and understanding.

Organize Your Content

Logical organization helps readers follow and understand your message. Use headings, subheadings, bullet points, and numbered lists to break up text and highlight key points.

  • Tip: Create an outline before you start writing to ensure a clear structure.

Use Clear and Simple Language

Choose words that are familiar and straightforward. Avoid jargon, technical terms, and complex sentences. If you must use specialized terminology, provide definitions or explanations.

  • Tip: Replace complex words with simpler alternatives (e.g., “use” instead of “utilize”).

Be Concise

Eliminate unnecessary words and focus on the essential information. Being concise helps keep your reader’s attention and improves understanding.

  • Tip: Review your text and remove redundant words or phrases.

Use Active Voice

Active voice makes your writing more direct and engaging. It clarifies who is doing what, which helps the reader follow your message.

  • Tip: Convert passive sentences to active ones (e.g., “The report was written by the team” becomes “The team wrote the report”).

Be Inclusive

Ensure your language is inclusive and respectful. Avoid stereotypes, biased terms, and language that might exclude or offend any group of people.

  • Tip: Use gender-neutral terms (e.g., “chairperson” instead of “chairman”) and inclusive pronouns (e.g., “they” instead of “he” or “she”).

Test Your Writing

Before finalizing your document, test it with a sample of your audience. Gather feedback to identify areas that may still be unclear or exclusionary.

  • Tip: Use readability tools and plain language checklists to assess your writing.

Provide Examples and Visuals

Sometimes, examples and visuals can help clarify complex information. Use diagrams, charts, and examples to illustrate your points.

  • Tip: Ensure visuals are accessible (e.g., use alt text for images) and examples are relevant to your audience.

By following these tips, you can create documents that are not only clear and concise but also inclusive and respectful. This approach enhances understanding, fosters trust, and ensures that your message reaches and resonates with a diverse audience.

The Differences Between Plain And Inclusive Language

While closely related, Plain and inclusive language serve different primary purposes in communication.

Plain language focuses on clarity and simplicity, ensuring the information is easily understood on the first read. It emphasizes using common words, short sentences, and an active voice to eliminate confusion and make complex information accessible. For example, instead of using complex terms like “commence,” plain language would use “start.”

On the other hand, inclusive language prioritizes respect and equality by avoiding expressions that might exclude or offend any group of people. It involves using gender-neutral terms, avoiding stereotypes, and recognizing diverse identities to ensure everyone feels acknowledged and respected. For instance, instead of using “chairman,” inclusive language uses “chairperson.”

While plain language makes communication clear and easy to understand, inclusive language ensures that it is respectful and considerate of all individuals. Together, they create effective, accessible, and respectful communication.

Comparison of Plain Language and Inclusive Language

AspectPlain LanguageInclusive Language
ObjectiveCreate content that is easily read, understood, and absorbed in a single reading by the majority of people.Ensure content is free from bias and does not exclude any demographic.
AdvantagesProduces easy-to-read content that appeals to a broader audience.Broadens audience appeal and reflects values of inclusion and tolerance.
Key DriversThe vast amount of online content requires quick readability.Growing resistance to political extremism and a generational push for openness and acceptance.
Implementation– Structure content effectively
– Use active voice
– Avoid overly elaborate language
– Eliminate unnecessary words
– Avoid exclusionary terms
– Use language preferred by specific groups
– Understand your audience
– Engage in ongoing education

Plain and Inclusive Language: A Powerful Combination

Plain language and inclusive language work together to create communication that is not only clear and straightforward but also respectful and accessible to all individuals. When combined, these approaches ensure that your message is easily understood by a wide audience, including those with different backgrounds, abilities, and literacy levels.

Plain language focuses on clarity and simplicity. It involves using familiar words, short sentences, and active voice to make the text easy to read and understand. For example, instead of saying, “We are in the process of reviewing your application and will notify you of our decision in due course,” you would say, “We are reviewing your application and will let you know our decision soon.”

Inclusive language, on the other hand, emphasizes respect and equality. It avoids terms that might be biased, stereotypical, or exclusive, ensuring that everyone feels acknowledged and valued. For instance, instead of “chairman,” which assumes a male leader, you would use “chairperson” to include all genders.

Combining plain language with inclusive language enhances communication effectiveness. For example, in a business setting, a non-plain and non-inclusive statement like “Utilizing man hours will expedite project completion” can be revised to “Using work hours will speed up project completion.” This revision simplifies the language and removes gender-specific terminology, making it more inclusive.

In legal documents, a sentence like “The chairman has the right to terminate the agreement at his discretion” can be transformed into “The chairperson can end the agreement at their discretion.” This revision simplifies the language and uses gender-neutral pronouns, making it both clearer and more inclusive.

In healthcare, instead of the complex and potentially exclusive “The patient should adhere to the prescribed regimen to avoid negative outcomes,” a plain and inclusive version would be “Follow the prescribed plan to stay healthy.” This revision uses direct and simple language, making the information more accessible and respectful.

By integrating plain language and inclusive language, you ensure that your communication is not only clear and concise but also welcoming and considerate of all individuals. This combination fosters better understanding, builds trust, and promotes a more inclusive and equitable environment.

Examples of Plain and Inclusive Language

ContextNon-Plain and Non-InclusivePlain and Inclusive
Business CommunicationUtilizing man hours will expedite project completionUsing work hours will speed up project completion
Legal DocumentsThe chairman has the right to terminate the agreement at his discretionThe chairperson can end the agreement at their discretion.
HealthcareThe patient should adhere to the prescribed regimen to avoid negative outcomes.You should follow the prescribed plan to stay healthy.
Government ServicesCitizens must comply with the regulations to ensure public safety.Everyone must follow the rules to stay safe.
Customer ServiceOur servicemen will handle all installation requests.Our service technicians will handle all installation requests.
EducationThe professor requires all students to submit his paper by Friday.The professor requires all students to submit their papers by Friday.
Technical DocumentationEnd users should read the manual thoroughly to understand how to operate his new device.End users should read the manual thoroughly to understand how to operate their new device.

These examples illustrate how plain and inclusive language can simplify complex information while making it more accessible and respectful. This approach enhances understanding, fosters trust, and promotes a more inclusive and equitable environment.

Start Using Plain And Inclusive Language

Plain and inclusive language is essential for effective communication. By using clear, simple, and respectful language, we ensure that our messages are accessible to everyone. This approach not only improves understanding but also fosters trust and inclusivity.

Incorporating plain language principles, such as using simple words and short sentences, along with inclusive language practices, like using gender-neutral terms, helps create communication that is easy to understand and respectful to all individuals.

The benefits are evident across various fields, including business, legal, healthcare, and government. Adopting plain and inclusive language makes our communication more effective and accessible, contributing to a more inclusive society.

Start incorporating plain and inclusive language into your communications today by using InclusivitEasy. Whether you’re writing emails, drafting reports, or creating public notices, remember to keep your language clear, simple, and respectful. Your audience will appreciate it, and your message will be more impactful.

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