Plain English

What is plain English and when should you use it?



Plain English is rapidly becoming the global standard for business writing.


There are many different writing styles – formal, informal, narrative fiction, journalistic, academic and so on. Which one you choose depends on why you’re writing and who your reader is, but for most everyday tasks such as writing letters or reports, plain English is a good choice.



Why? Because the purpose of this style is to communicate as clearly and concisely as possible, without ambiguity. It’s less about conveying your unique ‘voice’, so I don’t recommend it for fiction. But business letters are not the place for purple prose – not if you want to make sure your reader understands your message.


Plain English ground rules

So, what are the main characteristics of this style of English? Basically, follow these ten guidelines:

  1. Write short sentences (15-20 words).
  2. Prefer commonly used words.
  3. Make it personal.
  4. Be polite.
  5. Get to the point quickly and be concise.
  6. Avoid passive sentences.
  7. Use a clear, logical structure and layout.
  8. Be consistent with number and date formats.
  9. Check for accurate spellingEnglish grammar and punctuation as well as facts.
  10. Above all, put yourself in your reader’s shoes.



Easy? Well, not necessarily. Something that’s easier to read is not always easier to write. I first learned about this relatively new writing style about five years ago, and although it made perfect sense to me, it took a while to get used to it. I had to break lifelong habits of formal and academic writing. I didn’t even know what passive sentences were, only that I was over-using them!


Clearer emails, letters, proposals and reports

Perseverance has paid off, though. These days I get much better results from my writing. The feedback I get from colleagues is that my emails, letters and reports are clear and to the point. More of my proposals get accepted. When I write a complaint letter, I usually get the result I want. And I’ve had a lot more success with my job applications since I started writing my cover letters in plain English.


If you start practising now, your skills will improve every day, and soon I guarantee you will be getting better results from your everyday writing. What feels unnatural today will soon become second nature. Remember, it is only breaking old habits that make it difficult. Ultimately your readers will understand you better, and that has to be good for business.

An excellent resource I can recommend is the Plain English Campaign website. It has free guides on grammar, design and layout as well as searchable glossaries containing plain English alternatives to financial and legal jargon. I have it bookmarked for easy reference.

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