Plain language basics for government websites

Posted on April 2, 2021


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Plain language helps you convey complex information. Your readers understand and get what they need quickly, with fewer questions and less confusion.

Benefits of plain language:

  • Helps people know what information means the first time they read it.
  • Makes services easy to use.
  • Is easier to translate into other languages.
  • Reduces calls and emails with clarification questions.

Organize information logically

Your information should be easy to follow. If you are explaining a process, use chronological order to describe the steps.

Lead with the most important message

Start with your most important message and make sure it’s not buried in your page. 

Consider a webpage with information about vaccines and your agency wants to encourage people to get them. The first message on your page should be:

Get vaccinated

A safe, effective, no-cost vaccine is available to everyone. Getting vaccinated can prevent you from getting the virus. It can also protect those around you from getting infected.

Chunk your content into sections

Break up your content into sections that make it easy for the reader to find the information they are looking for quickly. Don’t overwhelm your reader with more than one topic in a section. 

Instead of:

Vaccines are free and you do not need insurance to get the vaccine. You can get a vaccine regardless of your immigration status. You can ride the bus or train to and from your vaccination appointment for free. Just show your appointment confirmation to the driver.

Do this:

Cost

Vaccines are free.

Insurance

You do not need insurance to get the vaccine. 

Immigration status

You can get a vaccine regardless of your immigration status. 

Transportation

You can ride the bus or train to and from your vaccination appointment for free. Just show your appointment confirmation to the driver.

Use helpful headings

Use concise and descriptive headings. Headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the rest of the content, but they should be clear. You can use topics, questions, or statements.

Example headings

  • Eligibility
  • Are you eligible?
  • See if you’re eligible.

Use lists

Lists highlight and help your reader focus on important information. Use numbers if there is a sequence or chronological steps, otherwise use bullets.

Example list

  • Healthcare workers
  • Residents of long-term care facilities
  • People 65 years and older
  • Age 16-64 with severe, high-risk medical conditions
  • Age 16-64 with significant, high-risk disabilities

Use simple and direct words

Use common and familiar words instead of the obscure. Here are some words to substitute with more familiar words.

Don’t say

Say

by means ofby, with
commencebegin, start
convenemeet
demonstrateprove, show
disseminategive, issue, pass, send
finalizecomplete, finish
in a timely manneron time, promptly
relocatemove
terminateend, stop
utilize, utilization
use

List of complex words and suggested substitutes

Avoid jargon and acronyms

Don’t use industry-specific terms or acronyms. If a fifth grader won’t be able to understand, use a different word. If you must, define the term or spell out the acronym. 

Instead of:

MPHD will provide free vaccinations at the PHDS located at 555 Sea View Road. Please bring ID verification and documentation that demonstrates restaurant industry employment eligibility requirements.

Say:

If you work at a restaurant, you can get a free vaccine from the Public Health department at 555 Sea View Road. Bring:

  • Photo ID (such as a driver’s license or passport)
  • Proof of work eligibility (such as a work ID badge, letter from your employer, or paystub) 

Avoid hidden verbs

A hidden verb is a verb turned into a noun. They often follow verbs like make and take. They often end in -ion and -ment.

Instead of:

We will make an announcement on Monday about new vaccine eligibility criteria.

Say:

On Monday we will announce new vaccine eligibility criteria.

Be concise

Short sentences are easier to read. Long, complex sentences are the most common problem in government writing. The first step to making your writing more concise is to break up long sentences.

The next step is to remove words. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Redundant words (like repeat again, circle around, exact same)
  • Unnecessary modifiers (adverbs like actually, simply, really, totally)
  • Wordy phrases (like in order to, at the present time, due to the fact that)

Be conversational

Use “you” and other pronouns

Address your reader with “you” so they understand what they need to do and how the information relates to them. Define “you” so they know if it applies to them.

Use other pronouns such as “I,” “we,” and “us” to add clarity and assign responsibility. Using “we” for your agency also makes you more approachable.

Example uses of pronouns

  • If you work in a restaurant, you can get a vaccine.
  • Am I eligible?
  • We will add more appointment slots on Friday.
  • Your health and safety is important to us.

Use active voice

Active voice also helps clarify who is supposed to do what. Sometimes passive voice is appropriate. Often it obscures information about who is responsible for doing something.

Instead of:

The following documentation must be provided at the time of appointment to satisfy eligibility requirements.

Say:

You must show the following documentation at your appointment to prove you are eligible.

Include examples

Use examples to clarify complex concepts. Think of how you might explain something to someone in a conversation. An example helps the reader understand how the information relates to them.

Example

If you are fully vaccinated, you can gather indoors with unvaccinated people without masks if they are from one household. For example, you can visit with your grandchildren.

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