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Style Manual

Plain language and word choice

Plain language can express complex ideas. Engage people with words they can understand quickly: use the list on this page. Clarify expressions people might be unfamiliar with.

Use everyday words

Choose words that people are familiar with. Unfamiliar words make content harder to read and understand.

Like this

Email your receipt by 5 pm today to claim the prize.

Not this

You are required to disclose financial documentation in a timely manner or you will be deemed to be disqualified from this prize offer.

Accessibility requirements

Level AAA requires a lower secondary education reading level, after removal of proper names and titles (year 7 or between 12 and 14 years old).

Write in plain language. This helps all users and is essential for some. Avoid (or explain) unusual words, phrases, idioms and so on. Expand all acronyms on their first use.

WCAG quick reference:

Use ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘us’ if you can

Use personal pronouns (like ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘us’) when it suits the voice and tone.

A direct, active voice and tone helps to engage users. Active voice and tone makes it clear who must do what.

Like this

We will assess your application within 30 days. [Active voice makes who is doing what clear. Personal pronouns ‘we’ and ‘your’ support a direct tone.]

Not this

Applications are assessed within 30 days. [Passive voice makes who is doing what less clear. There are no pronouns in this sentence.]

Avoid jargon

Remove jargon, slang and idioms.

Like this

They changed their decision in response to new information.

Not this

They changed their decision in light of new information. [‘In light of’ is an idiom.]

Use inclusive language

People can relate to content when it uses inclusive language. Choose words that respect all people, including their rights and their heritage.

Learn about the words people use

Find out if your word choice matches the words people will use to find the content. What is obvious to you might not be obvious to the them.

Including the everyday words and phrases you discover also helps people understand your content. People engage more readily with familiar language.

You can build insight through user research and content testing. For example, you can check whether:

  • you are using unfamiliar jargon
  • you need to highlight unfamiliar concepts and explain them.

Check search engine analytics for terms people are using to find related content online. You can discover useful search terms and keywords to include in search engine optimisation.

Choose simple words, not complicated expressions

There is usually more than one way to express something. Find the simplest, clearest option.

Replace longer words and phrases with simpler alternatives. You can use this table as a starting point.

Words to avoid and plain language alternatives
Don’t write this Try this instead
acquire buy, get
additional more, extra
adequate number of enough
address the issue solve the problem
answer the question
advising in relation to advising on, advising about
amongst among
a number of some, many, few
(or tell people how many there were)
approximately about
as a consequence of because
ascertain find out
assist help, support, guide
at a later date later, soon
(or tell people a specific or rough timeframe)
at this point in time now
attempt (verb) try
cease stop, end
cognisant of aware of, know
collaborate with work with
commence start, begin
concerning about
consequently so
create a dialogue speak, discuss, talk
deliver,
drive
say what you are doing – for example, ‘increasing’ ...
desire want
despite the fact that although
(or break up the sentence to avoid this phrase)
disburse pay
discontinue stop, end
dispatch send
due to the fact that because
exit (verb) leave
give consideration to consider
impact, impact on (verb) affect
implement apply, install, do, start
in order to to
in receipt of get, have, receive
in relation to
in regards to
in respect of
about, on
in the event that if, when
inquire ask
is unable to can’t, cannot
it is requested that you declare declare
leverage use, build on
make an application apply
make a complaint complain
manner way
methodology method
notwithstanding even though, though, even if, despite
obtain get, have
presently now
prior to before
primary main
provide a response to respond to
provide assistance with help, support
pursuant to under
reach or make a decision decide
require need, must
subsequently after
table (verb) – unless tabling a document in parliament address, discuss, release
thereafter then, afterwards
until such time as until
upon on
utilise use
whilst while
with reference to
with regard to
with respect to
about

Keep words and phrases with special meaning to a minimum

People can be unfamiliar with words you need to use, for example:

For names and terms with special meaning, follow style rules and conventions. This helps users scan content.

Be selective about shortened forms, such as abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms.

Some shortened forms are better-known than the full form of the term, for example ‘DNA’. Check a dictionary to see if the acronym or initialism is listed.

Shorten only the words and phrases that are well known or used many times in your content. Shortened forms can help people read and understand content, but too many can be difficult to keep track of.

Spell them out the first time you use them.

Example

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) helps government agencies create digital services.

Shortened forms can be a type of jargon that is not suitable in plain language content. Try to avoid them altogether if they are used only once or twice.

You can include technical or specialist terms if your research shows your audience uses them. But start with plain language words as the default to keep the reading level accessible. Plain language helps everyone.

To help people understand specialist or technical content:

  • Explain terms – for example, use a glossary.
  • Include a short summary without using specialist terms.

In content with many specialist terms, reserve shortened forms for the most frequently used terms only. Spell out other terms in full.

Release notes

The digital edition has practical guidance on plain language. It relates plain language to writing in the English language.

The sixth edition and Content Guide referred to ‘plain English’ only.

About this page

Evidence

GOV.UK (2016) ‘A-to-Z: words to avoid’, Style guide, GOV.UK.

GOV.UK (2019) Content design: planning, writing and managing content, GOV.UK.

New Zealand Government (2020) ‘Plain language’, Content design guidance, Digital.govt.nz.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘Plain language’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca.

United States Government (n.d.) Plain language, plainlanguage.gov.

W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) (n.d.) ‘Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.5: reading level’, Understanding WCAG 2.1, W3C website.

References

Australian Public Service Commission (2018), APS values, APSC website, accessed 9 October 2020. [Public Service Act 1999, s 10.]

Content Design London (2019) ‘Plain English’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 19 November 2019.

Content Design London (2019) ‘Specialist terms’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 20 November 2019.

Cutts M (2013) Oxford guide to plain English, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

European Commission (2016) How to write clearly, Publications Office of the EU, Luxembourg, accessed 6 May 2020.

Macquarie University and Biotext (n.d.), Readability issues 2020, Macquarie StyleHub website, accessed 28 September 2020.

Neilson J (13 March 2005) ‘Lower-literacy users: writing for a broad consumer audience’, Neilson Norman Group, accessed 20 November 2019.

Office of the Parliamentary Counsel (2016) Plain English manual, OPC, accessed 19 November 2019.

Pease J (7–9 November 2012) ‘Plain English: a solution for effective communication’ [conference presentation], ACLA National Conference, Sunshine Coast, accessed 20 November 2020.

Peters P (2007) The Cambridge guide to Australian English usage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Plain Language Association International (2020) What is plain language?, PLAIN website, accessed 20 January 2020.

Tasmanian Government Communications (2012) Plain language in communication: guide, Tasmanian Government Communications website, accessed 19 November 2019.

United States Government (n.d.) ‘Use simple words and phrases’, Plain language, plainlanguage.gov, accessed 22 September 2020.

Victorian Law Reform Commission (2017) Plain English and the law: the 1987 report republished, VLRC website, accessed 22 September 2020.

W3C (2016) ‘Readable: understanding Guideline 3.1’, Understanding WCAG 2.0: A guide to understanding and implementing WCAG 2.0, W3C website.

Wright N (n.d.) ‘Keep it jargon-free’, Resources, plainlanguage.gov.

This page was updated Friday 9 October 2020.

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