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Style Manual

Sentences

Clear sentences in active voice improve readability. Keep sentences short to help people scan content.

Write plain language sentences

Standard English sentences are built on subject–verb–object order. This structure forms the basis of plain language writing.

Keep sentences to an average of 15 words and no more than 25 words, especially for digital content. Too many words, phrases and clauses affect people’s ability to scan sentences.

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid longer sentences – for example, if you have to include a long department name. Sentences over 25 words can usually be broken up using different techniques, like using lists.

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.

WCAG quick reference: 3.1.5 Reading level – level AAA.

Use active voice

Use active rather than passive voice. Active voice helps users understand who is doing what. It can also help people know exactly what their responsibility is.

Example

Eligible students can access the subsidy by completing the application. [Active voice]

The subsidy can be accessed by completing the application. [Passive voice]

The difference is clearest with action verbs:

  • Active voice: the grammatical subject is performing the action in a sentence.
  • Passive voice: the grammatical subject is undergoing the action.
Example

Active voice: The student filed the application. [‘The student’ is the grammatical subject, who did the filing. ‘The application’ is the object.]

Passive voice: The application was filed by the student. [‘The application’ is the grammatical subject, but did not do the filing.]

Construct positive, unambiguous sentences

Words, phrases and sentences can have more than one meaning. Write exactly what you mean and construct your sentences so there is no ambiguity.

Like this

The graduate with a broken leg sat at the desk. [The graduate has a broken leg.]

Not this

The graduate sat at the desk with a broken leg. [Either the graduate or the desk could have a broken leg.]

Write sentences so they are positive rather than negative.

Like this

Include these documents when you apply.

Not this

You can’t submit your application if you don’t include these documents.

Avoid double negatives

Double negatives can lead to misunderstandings, so avoid them.

Write this

It was acceptable …

Not this

It was not unacceptable …

Eliminate unnecessary words

Make each word work for its place in the sentence. Sentence structure is clearer if each word plays a necessary role. Clear sentences improve readability.

It helps to test the combination to know which words are necessary.

Keep the words that play a critical function in the sentence. Remove all the words except the subject, verb and object (if applicable).

Check if the sentence is grammatically correct when you remove the other words.

Build the sentence back together, leaving out any words that aren’t absolutely necessary. Adverbs and adjectives are usually good to candidates to leave out in this kind of test.

Check if the basic meaning of the sentence remains, and if it’s grammatical. Then check if the words you’ve removed are really working to keep their place.

Write this

We provide statistics for trade reports. Contact us with trade data requests and we’ll respond within 2 business days.

[This is concise text that communicates relevant and necessary information. It uses 19 words.]

Not this

Our team will happily provide you with any statistics you might be seeking for the purpose of producing better and more factually accurate trade reports. Let us know if you’re seeking specific trade data and we’ll seek to provide it to you as soon as we can, usually within 2 business days.

[This text uses unnecessary adverbs, adjectives and contains irrelevant information. It uses 52 words.]

Testing combinations as you write will also help create concise and easily understood headings, fragment lists and descriptive links.

Word combinations affect punctuation, spelling, capitalisation and formatting. For example, there are rules about the use of commas between adjectives and the use of hyphens between adverbs and verbs.

Check guidance about types of words and their function. This guidance relates closely to guidance for style rules and conventions.

Be precise

Avoid unnecessary words. Keep the words needed to make meaning clear.

Like this

Call us if you have any questions.

Not this

If you were unsure about any of the information or needed more details, you are welcome to telephone our office to acquire what you needed.

Avoid using ‘there is’ and ‘there are’ when they only add extra words and not meaning.

Write this

If anything doesn’t fit within this framework ...

Not this

If there is anything that doesn’t fit within this framework ...

Vary sentence structure

Vary your sentence structure to suit the content.

Sentence structures can be simple, compound or complex. This depends on the number of clauses they contain and how clauses work together.

Simple sentence structures are easier to scan. People understand meaning through the order of words in a sentence. A simple sentence construction has fewer parts to take in.

Compound and complex sentences can add variety and flow to your writing. Sentences should still be easy to scan, even using these structures.

Complex structure is harder to follow, regardless of a person’s literacy level. Complex structures take more effort to read, even if they are punctuated properly.

Like this

You can delete your application within an hour of applying.

[‘Within an hour of applying’ modifies the main clause.]

Not this

You can, within an hour of applying, delete your application.

[The modifier is inserted into the main clause. This structure is complex and slows down reading.]

Build simple phrases and clauses

Sentences consist of phrases and clauses. Each group of words carries out a different function.

Phrases and clauses are groups of words that work as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions in sentences.

You can build layers of meaning by combining different types of words, phrases and clauses. Layering sentences makes them more complex.

Example

The plane arrived.

The plane arrived in Darwin.

The plane arrived in Darwin carrying freight.

The plane arrived in Darwin carrying freight that needs inspection.

The plane arrived in Darwin carrying freight that needs inspection for dangerous goods.

The plane arrived in Darwin carrying freight that – before being unloaded – needs inspection for dangerous goods.

Some common constructions used in bureaucratic writing are complex and unnecessary. They add words but not meaning.

Instead of bureaucratic language, use plain language words and terms.

For example, use a verb instead of the noun that relates to the verb. If you use the noun instead, you have to change the verb into the noun and usually add other words.

Like this

Please apply. [‘Apply’ is the verb.]

Not this

Please make an application. [‘Application’ is the noun that relates to the verb ‘apply’.]

Use fewer than 3 adjectives or nouns at a time

Phrases that combine more than 3 adjectives or nouns are difficult to understand. Rephrase sentences to break up strings of adjectives or noun trains.

You can often rephrase the string of adjectives or noun train as a clause. Follow the rule to keep sentences short and their structure simple.

Write this

The goal is to analyse how we can reallocate human resources. The analysis will inform our business plan.

Not this

The human resource reallocation analysis will inform our business plan.

[‘Human resource reallocation analysis’ is a noun train that is difficult to understand.]

Avoid using ‘if’ and ‘unless’ together

Don’t use words such as ‘if’ and ‘unless’ in the same sentence.

Like this

From 1 October, your partner can sign forms on your behalf.

Not this

If your partner signed the form on your behalf, we can accept it unless they signed it before 1 October.

Use ‘other than’ carefully

When you use ‘other than’, make sure it’s clear which words are included in the exception.

Write this

A person who is younger than 60, other than a teacher ...

Not this

A person other than a teacher who is younger than 60 ...

Avoid ‘such ... as’ and ‘being’

Don’t use the ‘such ... as’ form.

Like this

Take appropriate steps.

Not this

Take such steps as are appropriate.

Use ‘and’ instead of ‘being’ or ‘not being’.

Write this

A person who is 70 or over and has a driving licence ...

Not this

A person who is 70 or over, being a person who has a driving licence ...

Release notes

The digital edition has practical guidance on plain language:

  • It discusses plain language sentences and relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language.
  • It consolidates information from the sixth edition and highlights the basics about clauses. It takes a different approach to the sixth edition by breaking grammar topics into specific subject areas like ‘phrases’ and ‘types of words’.
  • It provides an overview on types of words to introduce grammatical concepts about parts of speech and how they relate to sentence structure.

The sixth edition called types of words ‘word classes’. It had summary information about parts of speech on pages 68 to 70. This formed part of Chapter 5 on grammar.

The sixth edition and Content Guide referred to ‘plain English’ only. The digital edition relates plain language to writing in the English language.

The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts.

About this page

Evidence

Content Design London (2020) ‘Simple sentences’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 6 April 2020.

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

New Zealand Government (2020) Plain language, Digital.govt.nz.

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

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘2.6: Use simple sentences’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘2.7: Use short sentences and paragraphs’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca.

United States Government (n.d.) ‘Be concise’, Plain language guidelines, plainlanguage.gov.

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

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

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

European Commission (2020) English style guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission, European Commission website, accessed 6 May 2020.

European Commission (2016) How to write clearly, Publications Office of the EU, Luxembourg, accessed 9 September 2020.

Garner BA (2016) Garner’s modern English usage, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

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.

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.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Strunk W and White EB (2000) The elements of style, 4th edn, Longman, New York.

University of Chicago (2017) Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

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

This page was updated Tuesday 13 October 2020.

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