Plain Language Principles
“Plain language,” also known sometimes as “plain English,” is writing in a way that helps readers understand the content in a document the first time they read it. It’s also the law. The Plain Writing Act of 20101 requires all federal agencies to use plain language whenever they communicate with the public.
Writing in plain language is not unprofessional. It’s not “dumbing down” the message or “talking down” to the audience. When you write clearly and get to the point without using unnecessary words or technical jargon, you get your message across more quickly and increase the chance the information will be understood and used.
FDA and our sister agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services are dedicated to using plain language. Our scientists, writers, lawyers, consumer safety officers, budget analysts, regulatory experts, and other professionals have valuable information to share, but it’s not effective if the target audience doesn’t understand it.
See 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.
Information written in plain language have some common characteristics, including:
- Identifying your audience and the point you’re trying to make
- Putting the most important point at the beginning
- Using common, easily understood words
- Using only technical terms when necessary, and make certain you’ve explain their meaning
- Using active verbs and personal pronouns
- Using bullets, tables, and other design features that break up the text and add visual interest
- Using short sentences and paragraphs (Sentences should average 15-20 words)
- Using acronyms and abbreviations sparingly
Plain Language on the Web
Visitors to our website are often in a hurry to find the information they need. They may scan a page as they look for quick answers to their questions. Help your readers find what they need by following these Web writing tips from PlainLanguage.gov:
- Be concise
- Break documents into separate topics
- Use short paragraphs—even shorter than on paper
- Use short lists and bullets to organize information
- Use even more headings with less under each heading
- Use white space liberally, so pages are easy to scan
- Use the same words a reader would use in a Web search—especially in the title
- Each page should stand on its own (Don’t assume your readers know the background on a topic or have read related pages on your site.)
- Never use "click here" as a link—link language should describe what your reader will get if they click the link.
Don't Be Wordy
Government writing is often wordy. Extra or elaborate words make your writing weaker. Here are some examples of extra words and their plain alternatives:
as a means of
as prescribed by
at a later date
at the present time
forms, makes up
for the purpose of
in accordance with
in order to
in the event that
on a monthly basis
so as to
should it appear that
with regard to
At the present time, the FAA in accordance with new regulations will on a monthly basis conduct random security checks in the event that there is a terrorist alert.
The FAA under new regulations will conduct monthly random security checks if there is a terrorist alert.