What is plain English?

Clear. Readable. Accessible. No jargon. No gobbledygook. No waffle. Professional.

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Did you know?

Many consumers find jargon, terms and conditions, and financial information challenging.  Many of us also hate wordy writing full of business-speak, legal-ese, waffle and jargon.

  • 45% of us find official documents difficult to understand
  • 95% of people are in favour of plain English
  • 25% of people in Ireland have literacy issues
  • 35% of people in Ireland are multilingual (not speaking English or Irish at home)

Plain English is easy to read – so it benefits everyone!

What is plain English?

Writing in plain English helps your intended audience to understand the first time they read. It isn’t ‘dumbed  down’ though. You can write in plain English and still appear polished and professional.

The definition we use comes from Clarity, the legal journal: ‘A communication is in plain English if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand it and use it.’

The key words are ‘intended readers’. We understand that plain English isn’t ‘one size fits all’. What’s important is that your writing is suitable for your target audiences. 

For example, if you’re writing a pensions brochure, you’ll need to use short sentences and everyday language and avoid jargon. But if you’re writing a report on pensions for financial advisors, you can use some longer sentences and jargon because they will expect it – and, more importantly, they’ll understand it easily.

Many countries support plain English, and Ireland is about to join the list. The new Programme for Government aims to introduce plain language for all public service writing. We hope that it will become the standard way of writing for all companies and agencies.  

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Why use plain English?

Customers can understand plain English the first time they read it, so it saves them time – and avoids irritation. It also helps them to make better informed decisions, which means they will make fewer mistakes when dealing with the information. 

All this saves organisations time and money because staff will receive fewer calls to the help-desk, have to deal with fewer incorrect forms, and get a better response to letters and emails. It can also help to avoid any escalation of problematic issues.

Plain language helps everyone who has literacy issues and people whose first language isn’t English. Research shows that people with high literacy levels also prefer plain English.

Customers like plain English

Research shows that customers are more likely to read information that is written and displayed in plain English – because they find it faster to read and easier to deal with. It also shows that customers are more likely to trust an organisation that communicates clearly and simply.

Is there any proof that plain English saves time and money?

Yes. Joseph Kimble, an international expert in plain English, points to 50 case studies that illustrate the benefits of using plain English – for customers and organisations. He has collected them in Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please and here are some of his examples.

Case studies – Saving time and money with plain English

Kimble notes that a plain English re-write of just one high-volume form or letter, which saves staff a few minutes for each one they handle, can add up to substantial savings for an organisation.

During a programme in the 1980s to improve communications, the UK government improved 21,300 forms and scrapped 15,700.  Examples of savings include:

  • A Customs and Excise form where the error rate was reduced from 55% to 3% – saving £33,000 a year in staff time
  • A Department of the Environment form had an error rate of 60% but the plain English version had an error rate of under 5%

An unclear ‘Redirection of mail’ form had an error rate of 87% and cost the Royal Mail over £10,000 a week in dealing with complaints and reprocessing incorrect forms. After it was rewritten, the error rate dropped significantly – and the Royal Mail saved a huge amount of staff time.

The response rate to a letter requesting US veterans to update details on a form increased to 65% from 43%  after it was re-written in plain English. It was calculated that staff saved 20 minutes per veteran, by receiving this information in the required form. Because this letter was sent to 320,000 veterans, the increased response rate resulted in savings of over $4 million.

During a plain English programme in Alberta’s Department of Agriculture, they revised 92 forms which were sent out to more than one million people each year. It is estimated that each new form saved staff at least 10 minutes in processing time – adding up to Canadian $3.5 million a year.

In the US, the Cleveland Clinic simplified a billing statement, using clear language and a logical structure. It recovered an additional $1million a month in the following few months.

The General Electric Company estimated that businesses using a revised manual made 125 fewer calls to its helpline per month – saving it up to $375,000 a year, per business customer.

All case studies are taken from Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please – The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government and Law by Joseph Kimble (Carolina Academic Press)

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