Plain language is not just plain words

Many equate plain language with plain words. While plain words are important, plain language is much more than this.

Plain language is a user-centred approach to producing content. It starts with understanding your audience’s needs. And ideally, it ends with user testing to make sure you’ve met them.

What is plain language?

The International Plain Language Federation says:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

The Plain Language Association International outlines five considerations for plain language.

  1. Audience and purpose
    Writers should identify their audience’s information needs. And they must be clear about why they’re writing — what the content should achieve.
  2. Structure
    Writers should organise information in a logical, helpful structure.
  3. Design
    Writers should use headings, lists, diagrams, and other design elements to make information usable.
  4. Expression
    Writers should use plain words, short sentences and other writing techniques that make content readable.
  5. Evaluation
    Writers should check content before it’s published. They could use a checklist or get a colleague to review their work. Wherever possible, they should test content with users.

A draft international standard

The International Plain Language Federation is working on a standard for plain language. They’ve asked plain language professionals to contribute.

In late 2019, the International Organisation for Standardisation (known as ISO) approved the development of the standard.

The new standard will have a similar structure to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. At the top of the structure are four main principles.

  1. The content is what the audience needs or wants.
  2. The audience can find the content they need or want.
  3. The audience can understand the content.
  4. The audience can use the content.

These will lead to a series of related guidelines, success criteria and techniques.

More than plain words

Using plain words is just one technique related to one principle of plain language. The new standard should help writers around the world adopt a deeper understanding of plain language.

If you’re interested in learning more, consider signing up for our web writing course. We present a plain language approach designed for web content.

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