• Sarah Neeson

What is Plain Language

There are a lot of people, even in the writing industry, who do not know what plain language is. Have you ever tried to read terms and conditions? Or a contract? If you've ever read something and not understood half of what you've read, it's likely because it is not in plain language.

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The idea behind plain language is to allow a regular person to be able to read a document and understand it the first time through. Some industries that can really benefit from this are legal, financial, and medical.


Why is it important?

Imagine you have just found out you have cancer and the doctor is explaining your chemotherapy protocol. He hands you a letter that you can take with you to read and explain again what he has told you. In the moment that you are with the doctor, you are likely too stressed to understand what he is saying. Later, when you're reading the document, you want it to be straightforward and easy to understand. This is plain language.


Imagine you are about to purchase your first home. You are about to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It is likely one of the scariest purchases you will ever make. The mortgage documents and the contract are very complicated. You want to be able to understand what your responsibilities are, how much you will be paying each month, and what will happen if you miss a payment. This is plain language.


Even if you can read English at a very high level, moments of stress and anxiety can drop your ability to comprehend content.


Imagine you have just signed up to use a new application on your phone or computer. There is a list of terms and conditions before you are allowed to start using it. You scroll to the bottom and haven't read a word of it before you click "I Agree". If those terms and conditions were a one or two sentences each written in plain language, you might be more inclined to read at least a few of them.


How Does it Work?

There are a few things you can do to make a document easier to read without needing to change any of the words. Start by separating the content into cohesive chunks with descriptive headings. This allows readers to scan through the document and find what they are looking for quickly.


Next, separate content into concise bulleted lists as much as possible. Having each item on its own line will allow the reader to see how many things there are (e.g., steps, items, rules) and they are again able to scan.


These two steps will go a long way to making content more readable even before trying to edit for plain language.

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