Part 4: Writing
4.2 Plain language
While there was a time when many business documents were written in the third person to give them the impression of objectivity, this formal style was often passive and wordy. Today, it has given way to active, clear, concise writing, sometimes known as “plain English” (Bailey, 2008). Plain language style involves everyday words and expressions in a familiar group context and may include contractions. Why use a $100 word when a 25 cent one will do?
Let’s consider some statements. What do you think makes one sentence easier to understand than the other?
Statements for reflection
Which statement is easier to understand? What elements make it easier to understand?
A. When communicating to an audience in-person, it is important to project your voice into the back corners of the room.
B. Speak loudly when presenting so the people in the back row can hear you.
Which statement is easier to understand?
A. No one is permitted to use the park during the hours of 10 p.m. – 6 a.m.
B. The park is closed from 10 p.m. – 6 a.m.
Which statement is easier to understand?
A. The photocopier is out of service until further notice.
B. The photocopier is broken.
As business and industry increasingly trade across borders and languages, writing techniques that obscure meaning or impede understanding can cause serious problems. Efficient writing styles have become the norm.
No matter who your audience is, they will appreciate your ability to write using plain language. Here are some principles for writing in plain language:
Principle 1: Use active voice
To communicate professionally, you need to know when and how to use either active or passive voice. Although most contexts prefer the active voice, the passive voice may be the best choice in certain situations. Generally, though, passive voice tends to be awkward, vague, wordy, and a grammatical construct you should avoid in most cases.
Recognizing the active and passive voice
To use active voice, make the noun that performs the action the subject of the sentence and pair it directly with an action verb.
Read these two sentences:
Matt Damon left Harvard in the late 1980s to start his acting career.
Matt Damon’s acting career was started in the late 1980s when he left Harvard.
In the first sentence, left is an action verb that is paired with the subject, Matt Damon. If you ask yourself, “Who or what left?” the answer is Matt Damon. Neither of the other two nouns in the sentence—Harvard and career—“left” anything.
Now look at the second sentence. The action verb is started. If you ask yourself, “Who or what started something?” the answer, again, is Matt Damon. But in this sentence, the writer placed career—not Matt Damon—in the subject position. When the doer of the action is not the subject, the sentence is in passive voice. In passive voice constructions, the doer of the action usually follows the word by as the indirect object of a prepositional phrase, and the action verb is typically partnered with a version of the verb to be.
Writing in the active voice
Writing in active voice is easy once you understand the difference between active and passive voice. Make sure you always define who or what did what.
Using the passive voice
While using the active voice is preferred, sometimes passive voice is the best option. Consider the following acceptable uses of passive voice.
- When you do not know who or what is responsible for the action:
Example: Our front-door lock was picked.
Rationale: If you do not know who picked the lock on your front door, you cannot say who did it. You could say a thief broke in, but that would be an assumption; you could, theoretically, find out that the lock was picked by a family member who had forgotten to take a key.
- When you want to hide the person or thing responsible for the action, such as in a story:
Example: The basement was filled with a mysterious scraping sound.
Rationale: If you are writing a dramatic story, you might introduce a phenomenon without revealing the person or thing that caused it.
- When the person or thing that performed the action is not important:
Example: The park was flooded all week.
Rationale: Although you would obviously know that the rainwater flooded the park, saying so would not be important.
- When you do not want to place credit, responsibility, or blame:
Example: A mistake was made in the investigation that resulted in the wrong person being on trial.
Rationale: Even if you think you know who is responsible for a problem, you might not want to expose the person.
- When you want to maintain the impression of objectivity:
Example: It was noted that only first-graders chose to eat the fruit.
Rationale: Research reports in certain academic disciplines attempt to remove the researcher from the results, to avoid saying, for example, “I noted that only first graders….”
- When you want to avoid using a gendered construction, and pluralizing is not an option:
Example: If the password is forgotten by the user, a security question will be asked.
Rationale: This construction avoids the need for the cumbersome “his or her” (as in “the user forgets his or her password”).
Principle 2: Use common words instead of complex words
Inappropriate word choices will get in the way of your message. For this reason, use language that is accurate and appropriate for the writing situation. Omit jargon (technical words and phrases common to a specific profession or discipline) and slang (invented words and phrases specific to a certain group of people), unless your audience and purpose call for such language. Avoid using outdated words and phrases, such as “Dial the number.” Be straightforward in your writing rather than using euphemisms (gentler, but sometimes inaccurate, ways of saying something). Be clear about the level of formality each piece of writing needs, and adhere to that level.
Writing without jargon or slang
Jargon and slang both have their places. Using jargon is fine as long as you can safely assume your readers also know the jargon. For example, if you are a lawyer writing to others in the legal profession, using legal jargon is perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you are writing for people outside the legal profession, using legal jargon would most likely be confusing, and you should avoid it. Of course, lawyers must use legal jargon in papers they prepare for customers. However, those papers are designed to navigate within the legal system and may not be clear to readers outside of this demographic.
Principle 3: Write for your reader
When you write for your readers and speak to an audience, you have to consider who they are and what they need to know. When readers know that you are concerned with their needs, they are more likely to be receptive to your message, and will be more likely to take the action you are asking them to and focus on important details.
Your message will mean more to your reader if they get the impression that it was written directly to them.
Organize your document to meet your readers’ needs
When you write, ask yourself, “Why would someone read this message?” Often, it is because the reader needs a question answered. What do they need to know to prepare for the upcoming meeting, for example, or what new company policies do they need to abide by? Think about the questions your readers will ask and then organize your document to answer them.
This chapter contains material taken from Part 1 “Foundations” in the Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team (used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license). You can download Professional Communications OER for free at http://www.procomoer.org/.