Category Archives: Plain Language

Blog #6 – “English, please” (The Power and Purpose of Plain Language)

Being technically inclined is a blessing and a curse; I’m able to troubleshoot my own issues with computers, but people sometimes ask for my help. It isn’t that the request for my help is a problem, but it irritates me to no end when I try to explain something in simple terms and it’s requested that I give directions “in English”. However, I understand the nature of the request. Plain language is vital when it comes to teaching a skill to people who lack fundamental knowledge about a specialized area within STEM.

A year or two ago, I was trying to teach my grandmother how to use a computer. I had to break everything down using simpler terms. She knew what I meant when I said she had to “click” an “icon”, but she didn’t know the names for things. She could grasp the concept of a “browser”, but she knew programs better as just that – programs. She knew each program was used for a different purpose, but she didn’t know them by name, as she doesn’t have much experience with computers. Plain language is especially helpful when explaining concepts marked by generational gaps (e.g. how to use a modern OS on a computer).

What I was saying earlier about being asked to use “English” when explaining how to troubleshoot an issue – that was something my aunt said to me when I visited her in Texas recently.  I’ve realized time and time again that it is absolutely crucial to use plain language with people who possess a basic understanding of computers. As a Computer Science major surrounded by technically inclined people, it’s easy to forget. People lose interest in what you’re talking about and get frustrated when you don’t use plain language. In the context of the general public, it is especially important to use plain language when speaking about STEM concepts because it serves to inform people in terms they understand. Now, there’s also a time and place for more technical/advanced terminology, but that is only with people who have an intermediate or advanced understanding of the topic you speak about.

Using plain language to explain computer science concepts to a beginner is extremely different from using plain language to explain the same concepts to say, a database administrator. Plain language, while helpful to beginners, can serve to irritate advanced users and also slow down the process of learning/teaching. If you are aware that a person understands the more advanced concepts of what you’re speaking about, then it’s important that you use vocabulary effectively in order to explain things in a reasonably succinct fashion.

I strongly agree that the author is responsible for using appropriate language when speaking to their audience. Before you even begin to write a piece, it is your responsibility, as the author, to know who your intended audience is. If you’re speaking to people who work within the same field, use the language you’d normally use. However, if you’re speaking to beginners or if there’s any doubt about who will see what you’ve written, use plain language! The audience bears the responsibility of asking questions when instructions are unclear.  Now, the author should write in a manner that enables the audience to understand what they’re talking about, but if uncommon/advanced terms or concepts are left undefined, then they might be doing more harm than help by leaving the audience in the dust, so to speak. The reader has the power to inform the author of the effectiveness of the piece. If there are any errors or if the piece lacks clarity, then the audience is able to inform the author and vicariously (through the author) ensure that future readers will be able to attain the understanding of the concepts that they seek to understand by reading the writer’s piece.

In conclusion:

  • Plain language makes STEM subjects more appealing to beginners because it makes it easier to understand them.
  • Plain language can work against a technical communicator because it can slow down communication between two people who are well-versed about the same subject.
  • It is the author’s responsibility to know their audience and it is the audience’s responsibility to inform the author of any flaws in the writing.

Do you understand me?


Picture gotten from

Spot the Difference

If you don’t believe the difference plain language can make, take a look at this example from a Public Health Service brochure. The Department of Health and Human Services revised a six-page article on Losing Weight Safely to create a single brochure with a message that’s much easier to follow.


The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half-hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.


Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.

By tweaking the statement above, the writer has successfully been able to identify the point he is trying to make by putting the most important point at the beginning, using common easily understood words, and short sentences which will most likely hold the audiences’ attention longer.

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to repeat myself after asking a question like “would that be all for you?”, I would have a jar filled with money. I can assure you that while I don’t particularly use any “big” words when having a conversation with someone, there is always a possibility for them to have difficulties understanding me. This is why writing or speaking in plain language has been something I continuously do because it works for me and the other person also, it saves me from having to repeat myself three times  or more. Writing in particular makes it easy to get a message across more quickly and increases the chance the information will be understood without using unnecessary words.

Plain writing helps audiences from different scopes of life to be able to grasp the meaning behind the words of a communicator. It would be much harder for someone who has no background knowledge of science or mathematics to understand what Newton’s Law of Gravity states but I bet when you say the words “what goes up must come down” he immediately grasps the concept behind the law as something he has heard before. I believe the plain style of writing does have benefits for technical writing students.  Because it can help us to apply the principles of plain language in our work, and helps us to understand better than anyone how plain language can improve communication throughout society.

 FDA U.S Food and Drug Administration. 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2014. <>.

Blog #6 Plain Language is a Necessity

The use of plain language in public discourse that is published by the government is vital for a society to function as a democracy. As the Center for Plain Language mentions, plain language is a civil right. In order for citizens to effectively participate in government, they must be able to comprehend the information presented. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 is vital, because its purpose is “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” It is useless for the government to publish information that the public cannot comprehend; it is a waste of time and resources.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 is important, because the government publications that are used by American citizens ought to be clear enough for the average citizen to understand. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average reading level for American adults is between the 8th and 9th grade level. For Americans older than 65, nearly 2 out of 5 read below a grade 5 level, and about 20 percent of Americans are “functionally illiterate” meaning that they cannot read most newspapers. The statistics are proof that the use of plain language is absolutely necessary when the audience is the average American.

However, I don’t support the use of plain language in all technical communication. For example, if the audience is mainly educated professionals and others who understand complex syntax, then plain language is not necessary. In other words, determining whether or not to implement plain language to technical communication depends on who the audience is.

Personally, I have found the use of plain language in tax documents very helpful with filing my taxes. Instead of paying a tax expert to fill out the forms, I was able to use the publications provided by the IRS to understand the forms. I have also been able to use the publications to file taxes for my family and friends. The publications implement plain language by organizing the information in a coherent way that is easy to follow, and the text is clear and concise. Thanks to this, I have saved hundreds of dollars for myself and others by filing the taxes myself.

A critique of using plain language may be that information is lost when it is condensed and translated into simple terminology. However, if used effectively, plain language does not result in a loss of information. It can save time and money by reducing misunderstandings and it can help people locate information more easily. Most importantly, it helps the information reach more people.

I have provided an example below to demonstrate the use of plain language in IRS Form CP 2000.




The Literacy Problem

Plain Language Association International

The Plain Writing Act of 2010


Blog Post #6: Plain Language

Throughout my college English career, the one main issue that has plagued many of my reports and papers is my tendency to be redundant and use unnecessary words, usually to sound smarter or fill up empty spaces on a Microsoft Word document.  While my underlying intentions may sometimes work, my ultimate goal is to become the best writer I can be and this can only be accomplished by mastering clear, cohesive, and direct methods of writing.

As a technical writer, it is absolutely imperative that the writer learn and master a means of translating difficult, job-specific vernacular to be understood by people of all levels of literacy and education.  In fact, Public Law 111-274 states that “this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”  With such a wide range of levels in literacy and education in our country, many people would be lost or confused.  A simple step-by-step guide to setting up your sound system could potentially be seen as another language should the discourse be difficult or highly technical.  Even something that may seem simple and easily understandable to one could be quite the opposite for another.

While in school at Valdosta State University, I took a creative writing class for a semester.  I enjoyed that class because our teacher was very smart and creative and she allowed us to indulge in any topics as long as they followed the assignment.  Many times I found myself writing about soccer because it is something I am very familiar with and have many experiences that I could discuss.  I remember writing a paper about my experience playing soccer overseas and how I was able to get involved in such an adventure.  I wrote about the selection process and how competitive it was to even be selected for a roster spot.  I felt confident about the paper and was hoping to receive high marks for my attention to detail and creative imagery.

However, upon receiving my paper back, I noticed red marks signaling areas for revision dotted all over my work.   The main issue after reading each comment was my failure to explain exactly what was meant by each stage that I went through to finally achieve a spot to play overseas.  The intricate soccer lingo had failed to capture the attention of my professor, who was confused on several points and could not grasp the significance of my paper because of it.  Although only a minute issue and clearly not government related, this opened my eyes to the importance of plain language and the ability to make technical jargon more understandable for the common person.  Without a more clear approach, people could become lost and lose focus on the ultimate goal the specific paper or report is trying to give.

Source Cited

Don’t Let Plain Language Get the Best of You

This article does not attempt to expose biases, unfairness, or deceptions associated with language in political campaigns, polls, or ballots. Unfairness is both legal and customary in campaign and ballot language. This article does examine an interesting use of plain language.

The Fall 2012 Elections in Georgia put many voters in conflict with their own opinions. In the Metro Atlanta counties, we were trying to wrap our heads around the Traffic Referendum, but there was also a charter school amendment up for vote. Previously, the Georgia Supreme Court decided that the state commission responsible for the approval of new charter schools was unconstitutional because the commission overrode local school boards and governments. Voters were to decide whether or not the state should be allowed to approve new charter charter schools. The language of the ballot and the polls that preceded the ballot was so plain in this case that the ballot question failed to communicate the implication of a “yes” or “no” vote.

The ballot question:

“Shall the constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

YES! Of course! But what does that mean?

To vote yes meant that voters, whether or not they knew it, would disagree with the Georgia Supreme Court ruling and permit the state commission in question to continue approving new charter schools despite local disapproval. To vote “no,” voters would agree with the court decision and give their local school boards more voice in the approval process of new charter schools. Voting “no” did not, however, mean an end to charter schools. The language of the ballot question made it seem that way, so that anyone who would call themselves proponents of education or progressive education laws would likely vote “yes.” In this scenario, the plainness of the language served more as a “primer” for a vote rather than an effort to clarify the meaning of a legislative proposal to the general public.

To quote Wayne Washington of The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Opponents say the wording falsely implies that local boards and the state can’t already approve charter applications. Roberts said supporters wanted to make sure voters knew the commission would not diminish local boards’ authority.”

If we reword the ballot question, the language can create an entirely different effect on the reader:

“Shall the constitution of Georgia be amended so as to decrease funding for local public schools and allocate more for new charter schools?”

This phrasing is just as plain and it concerns the same legislation, but it suggests for voters to vote “no” and disagree with the legislation. This phrasing and the original are quite biased and pointed, but they share the same dangerous quality—plainness.

After seeing how the plain language in this ballot question worked, we can conclude that it served not to clarify, but to obscure something from the readers/users of the ballot. Whether you voted “yes” or “no” for this amendment, you should be able to recognize how this use of plain language deviated from our understanding of plain language as something that should help people of different literacy levels understand government policy.

Even though the federal law concerning plain language requires that “[our regulatory system] must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand,” we are still subject to deviations in language where this law holds no sway, such as ballot questions in state elections.

Blog#6: Less Is More, Right?

hoto courtesy of Barnes & Nobles.


Compare the following over-the-counter drug labels that have the same content in different formats:




Photos courtesy of Plain Language.


The bottom label is undoubtedly the easier one to read and understand because the author used “plain language,” or “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” (PlainLanguage). In addition, they used different modalities, such as bold lettering, various font sizes, bullet points, and effective use of space (despite how small the backsides of medicine are).


The mistake that most students make, including me, is the tendency to use too many words in order to sound scholarly. In fact, Ken Macrorie creates a word for it, Engfish, in his article “The Poisoned Fish.” My definition of Engfish is that it is a wordy weapon inflicted on students to sound smart. Macrorie suggests that textbooks are responsible for the ways that students write and that redundancy and unnecessary words are the underlying issues. To fix these issues, we should use plain language.


In my personal life, I found that I cannot speak to my mother in ways that I can speak to my brother. For example, when I text my mother, I have to be considerate of the words I use and how to construct them into sentences that are easy for her to understand and that do not require any further explanation. However, the texts I send my brother contain more complex words, implications, and other language that would be a burden to my mother in everyday conversation. The difference is in their education levels. My mother has no college degree, but my brother has a master’s degree. Forty percent of Americans have a college degree, which means we need to accommodate our writings for the other 60 percent without a college education by using plain language. Is this always possible?


I think that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses intimidate and discourage people from investing their education in those fields. Applying plain language principles to make them less intimidating is difficult because STEM fields contain jargon associated with their specialized subjects. Yes, every field has its set of jargon, but STEM jargon is not easily (or accurately) defined in a dictionary or understood by the average person.


Similarly, technical communicators need to use plain language because it is intimidating not to do so. However, unlike STEM fields, it is an easier field to apply plain language principles. Technical communicators often already use tables to organize information and use pictures as examples—think of our Writer Designer booklet, and now imagine it without the tables and pictures. Plain language is very effective under these circumstances.


The biggest risk of plain language is unwanted results from the lack of information. For example, in a previous technical communications class, I had to write a recipe for Swiss chard rolls. It was a fairly long recipe, and I found it too intimidating for the average cook, so I got carried away with the “backspace” button and eliminated important steps in the process. For instance, the cook had to take out the rib of the leaves so that it was pliable and easier to roll, but I did not explain how to do that. Likewise, the cook had to dry the Swiss chard leaves after blanching them, but I never specified the best technique to dry them. Therefore, many users ended up with soggy rolls that kept falling apart.


Also, my target audience was current vegetarians, so I assumed they knew certain ingredients, such as tempeh. However, most of the vegetarians in my user-testing were at various levels; some just started as vegetarians and some were veterans of the diet. I learned that I had to evaluate my audience further, so this led me to believe that I was solely responsible for making sure my audience knew everything from different cooking equipment to the difference between shredded cheese and grated cheese. I created a quick checklist for evaluating the audience based on information provided by the Center for Plain Language:

  • List the different levels of education of the audience
  • List what people want to know
  • Anticipate what readers already know and what they need to know to complete the task
  • Use words the audience knows
  • List characteristics of the groups that should influence design

Lastly, I think it is worth noting how this topic relates to our service learning project. I would relate plain language to it in a couple of ways. For instance, my group’s project focuses on creating an annual report and newsletter templates. The audience for both of these projects will be the donors of Our House. Annual reports have more formal and scholarly tones compared to newsletters. Therefore, we have to maintain some level of academic writing. However, we have to keep in mind that our projects are not limited to the current donors. Potential donors have access as well, which puts us in a position to aim for plain language.


Sources Cited

Center for Plain Language.

PBS News Hour.

Plain Language.

Blog # 6: Plain Language

Technical communication often covers complex and specialized subject matter, sometimes requiring a high-degree of literacy, and an advanced graduate or professional degree to understand completely. Just as frequently, though, the audiences you’ll encounter in the non-academic workplace will comprise non-specialists and specialists alike, as well as groups with varying levels of formal education and literacy. For that reason, unless you are communicating with a narrow, specialized audience–the readers of a professional or academic journal, for instance–you may be asked to use “plain language” standards in your communication.

Image of John McCain's
What is the relationship, if any, between a communicator’s obligation to use plain language and a communicator’s obligation to avoid misrepresentation or deception? Does “straight talk,” for example, necessarily involve using plain language? Is plain language inherently more “honest” than specialized technical or professional discourse? Image of “The Straight Talk Express” used courtesy of a CC license by DoubleSpeak Media.

So what is “plain language,” exactly? At its core, creating plain language communication involves using simplified syntax and vocabulary to communicate complex ideas without losing essential information or meaning. A number of resources are available to help you understand and apply the guiding principles of the plain language movement. The website is one of the most useful. Plain language is the law, pursuant to an executive order requiring all federal agencies to use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” (Plain Language). Read the law (it’s short). You can use it to help your own writing and to guide you in helping others.

Even when you’re not legally required to use plain language, it often makes sound rhetorical sense to do so. In many cases, everything from corporate mission statements to legally binding contracts can benefit from application of what the Center for Plain Language identifies as “The ten commandments of simplification.”  Skillful communicators have a responsibility to create information that is useful and usable for its audiences. In their widely cited article, George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan (1990) “demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues” (p. 550).

Posting: Group 2

Commenting: Group 1

Category: Plain Language

For this blog post, consider a situation from your personal experience in which plain language communication was or might have been useful. Or, you might consider a situation in which the use of plain language created or might have created unexpected negative consequences. According to the Center for Plain Language, “Plain language is a civil right.” This statement could be read to imply that the use of specialized, technical discourse is somehow anti-democratic. The statement also presumes that complex ideas about science, technology, philosophy, law, politics, etc., should be accessible to specialized and non-specialized audiences alike. Take a position on whether and when plain language concerns should influence technical communication, and whether and when plain language concerns might be outweighed by other issues. Use the questions below (or similar ones you create) as starting places as you craft your post:

  • What role might plain language principles play in encouraging greater public understanding of STEM fields and interest in STEM education?
  • Are there circumstances in which using plain language could interfere with your ability to communicate effectively with your intended audience?
  • Plain language principles (and our text) presume the author bears the primary responsibility for assuring communication is usable for its intended audiences. What do you think of that presumption? What responsibilities should the audience bear, if any?

In your Blog #6 post, you need to take a focused position about plain language and its proper role in your technical communication process rather than taking a scattered approach (which would happen if you simply wrote a few sentences in response to each question). Please carefully read and follow the guidelines and posting information for this blog. You can quote from additional articles you read as support for your position. You should include specific workplace examples to further support your argument. Make sure to document your sources.

Sources Cited

Gopen, George D. and Judith A. Swan. The science of scientific writing. (1990). American Scientist, 78, 550-558.

Plain Language.

Center for Plain Language.

Featured Image Credit: “jargon” by Sarah O’Carroll on Flickr.

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