Plain Language in Government Communications

Plain Language in Government Communications
Posted on 02/24/2016
CivicLive - Plain Language in Government Communications

In 2010, the President signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, legally requiring all federal agencies to provide “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use”. If this sounds minor, think back to when Facebook’s privacy settings suddenly started making sense: plain language has major effects on accessibility. While these laws do not yet apply to state or municipal governments, plain language is becoming accepted as the best practice for all government communication.

By reducing jargon, simplifying sentence structure, and choosing easier words whenever possible, important information becomes clearer for everyone, particularly for those whose first language is not English and for those living with disability. Plain speech takes practice and careful self-editing, but it pays off.

So how does one break bad habits? Through a clever step-by-step process, of course:

1. Break It Down

After a frenzied writing session, you may wind up with the following:


“After approximately four hours of fierce deliberation, City Council members voted affirmatively in a landmark debate over whether to change the name of Main Street to Alberta Washington Street in tribute to the City’s former mayor’s scrupulous tenure, during which she made a swath of imperative decisions that have assisted the City in maintaining its reputation as among the finest in the nation. The City will hold a formal ceremony on February 14th to commemorate the change and pay tribute to Ms. Washington, who recently celebrated her 75th birthday.”


It’s certainly informative and action-packed, but it’s also nearly impossible to understand it the first time around and it demands that the reader have an advanced vocabulary. So break it down to what really matters to the readers: Who acted? What did they do? Whom/what was affected? These three elements leave us with the purest form of the story:


City Council voted to change the name of Main Street to Alberta Washington Street.

2. Split It Up

Now that we know who did what, we can look at why. This is where we begin to define our audience: What do they already know? What more do they need to know? If a person only recently moved to the City, they may not know why the Council is bothering to rename the street. But last time we tried to explain why, we ended up with a proper tongue-twister. So let’s try this:


“City Council voted to change the name of Main Street to Alberta Washington Street. Alberta Washington’s scrupulous tenure as mayor assisted the City in maintaining its reputation as among the finest in the nation.


If you ever find yourself re-reading something to try and make sense of it, odds are that it should be split into two (or three) shorter sentences.

3. Simplify and Repeat

While our story has improved, that second sentence still demands too much of our readers. Once again, ask yourself who did what and cut the rest:


Alberta Washington’s mayoral term helped keep the City’s status as one of the best in the nation.”


People naturally want to show off their vocabulary, but while complex words may perfectly convey your message to some people, they can obscure your message for others.

“City Council voted to change the name of Main Street to Alberta Washington Street. Alberta Washington’s mayoral term helped keep the City’s status as one of the best in the nation. There will be a formal ceremony on February 14th to commemorate the change and pay tribute to Ms. Washington, who recently celebrated her 75th birthday.”


Isn’t that much better? Because plain language serves such a wide variety of people, it will likely prove to be the single greatest accessibility innovation of the 21st century. Writing plainly takes practice, but as we’ve proven today, you can start making meaningful changes immediately. Of course, there is always more to learn, so join us next month for more tips on how to make a difference with your writing.

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