Rules and guidelines of plain language
Hint: This article is written especially with the German language in mind. I hope it may be helpful for you.
The Plain language is aimed at persons who have little reading experience but are in principle able to extract complex facts from texts. It is restrictedly suitable for persons with learning disabilities/mental disabilities.
The Plain language corresponds to language level B1. It is close to journalistic formats such as "Writing for speech" or "Writing for the Internet". However, the principles are more strictly implemented.
So far, Plain language has only been regulated informally in Germany. There is a lot of confusion as a result. My concept is essentially based on the Plain Language from the USA.
I'm not talking about rules either, I'm talking about guidelines/principles. Rules are stricter and thus make inflexible. However, the Plain language should remain universally applicable and flexible. Therefore, all guidelines are a can and not a must. But that is not a license to ignore all guidelines. Then you can no longer speak of Plain language. I don't say translate either, I say transfer. A translation creates a new text, which is only the case with Plain language if the source text is extremely complex.
- All principles at a glance
- punctuation and formatting
- structuring of information
- Special features for digital texts
- Some principles in detail
- lists and enumerations
- Special case I: Gender and plain language
- Special case II: Politically correct language
- Special case III: Fashion language, academic language and official language
All principles at a glance
The Plain language should not remain a secret science. Since in Germany there is currently no association that publishes all rules/principles of Plain language and gives them an official stamp, I have published my set of rules here. Below are the rules/principles of plain language as I use them in transmissions. You are welcome to use these rules/principles for your requirements management/for the award of contracts, even if you hire someone else. You can also use these guidelines as a counter-check if you want to check the quality of a transmission.
It is also important to always adapt the text to the minimum standard of a target group. For example, if you are talking about digitization and want to reach older persons, you cannot use terms such as digital infrastructure, broadband connection or artificial intelligence without explaining them. If you explain life in Germany to migrants, you have to explain abstract concepts that are not understood without the specifically German background: For example, a migrant may not know the difference between a federal state and a district.
The level of words
Avoid words unfamiliar to the reader.
Explain unfamiliar words to the reader when they need to be used.
Prefer verbs and put the verbs at the beginning of the sentence if possible.
Avoid nouns. Substantivations are verbs and adjectives from which nouns are made or from which verbs or adjectives can be made. Substantivations can often be recognized by the word endings -ung, -tät and -eit.
Avoid clustered nouns. If two or more capitalized words appear in a row in a sentence, they are probably noun chains.
avoid adjectives. They are often judgmental and mostly do not contribute to understanding.
Avoid unfamiliar abbreviations.
Avoid synonyms. Repeat the word even if it's not good writing style.
Avoid compound words/composites. Use hyphens with unusual compounds to make them easier to understand.
Avoid filler words. Filler words are maybe, even, but, also. Check if you can delete these words without changing the statement.
Avoid hyphenation in print and digital texts.
Be precise. For example, write car instead of motor vehicle.
Make only one statement per sentence. If a sentence contains several commas or other punctuation marks, it probably contains several statements or too much information.
Use no more than 14 words per sentence. In the case of unusual compounds, each word component should be counted as a separate word.
Keep the noun and verb as near together as much as possible.
Avoid back references like the former and the latter and so on. Repeat the word even if it's not good writing style.
Prefer positive statements. Positive statements are almost always easier to understand than negative statements. Double negatives are rarely understood on the first try.
First state a rule and then the exception.
Write actively and avoid passive constructions.
Use a personal approach. Rather write "I" and "you" instead of "man" or "the participant".
Avoid intermediate clauses and appended subordinate clauses. They practically never contribute to intelligibility. This includes words or phrases in brackets or quotation marks.
Use simple statement forms. For example:
- “if x, then y”
- “Either X or y”.
- Conditional clause: “If…, then…”
- Causal clause: “Because…,
Use real-life examples.
punctuation and formatting
Format the text in a way that is easy to read. Avoid justification, exotic fonts, mixing multiple fonts, text that is too small or too large, text that lacks contrast, and anything else that makes the text difficult to grasp visually.
If possible, use only two punctuation marks per sentence. The more punctuation marks, the more complex the sentence is.
Use highlighting sparingly. The meaning of italics, capital letters or bold is often not understood by the reader and makes it difficult to read.
structuring of information
Arrange the information in a meaningful way. Avoid leaps and bounds, digressions, and anything that might distract the reader.
Put important information at the beginning of the text. Answer the question at the start of what information the reader will find in the text. The reader should be able to quickly decide whether the text is relevant to him or her. Answer the W-questions in the first two paragraphs (Who, When, Where, Why...).
Repeat important information. As a writer, you must decide what information is important. Important information can also be summarized in a text box.
Use subheadings. Sub-headings summarize the following statements, allow the text to be read selectively and form visual points of orientation.
Structure thhe text logically from the reader's perspective. For example, go from general to specific or from specific to general. Include information that the reader will later need to understand the entire text if you are not sure that the reader already knows this information.
Leave out unnecessary information. Think about which information is not necessary for the reader to understand the message of your text.
Avoid enumerations within sentences. Visual lists provide additional structure to the text, making it easier to scan. If the reader sees a list, he can also adjust to it cognitively.
Put mandatory information at the end if it is not necessary for understanding the text.
Special features for digital texts
Use a linked table of contents for texts that are longer than 3000 characters.
If possible, include all important information on the respective topic on one subpage. If possible, avoid linking to texts that the user must have read in order to understand the current text.
Link as little as possible within the text. If possible, place further links at the end of the text.
Some principles in detail
In the following section you will find some principles presented and explained in detail.
The vocabulary of the Plain language comprises around 2400 words. That's not very much, the German language contains about half a million words.
Above all, you have to consider how well known the respective word is. If you cannot assume that the word is known, you must explain it.
If possible, try to use terms from related areas. The human brain works associatively, it recognizes words in a text more easily if they come from the same topic. Imagine a semantic web in which the more related terms are, the more closely related they are. Baker and bread are closely related, while accountant and wood are more distant from each other.
Verbs with nouns such as use, employment and avoidance are difficult. Such words indicate a nominal style that should ideally be avoided. In general, nouns should not appear in clusters one after the other. Some scholarly publications manage to fit three or four nouns in a five-word title. In Germany pay attention to the suffixes -keit, -ung and -heit, this is how you recognize most nouns.
Avoid rare words. The better known a word is, the faster it can be read. Experienced readers can often guess a word after just a few letters and thus increase their reading speed.
Avoid compound words. The association for saving the environment is easier to read and is recorded more quickly than the environmental Saving association. Compounds only have an advantage if they can be assumed to be known.
Foreign words and abbreviations are avoided or explained or written out when first mentioned. This is a general rule that needs to be specified a bit. Restaurant is also a foreign word, but nobody would think of translating it into German. On the other hand, German words can also be unknown for example if they come from a dialect. So explain words that rarely appear in everyday speech.
You may find the following rules for choosing words helpful:
- Don't use words you don't know the meaning of. For example, do you know what cohesion or hegemony means? Know the difference between effective and efficient.
- Do not use a foreign word if there is a suitable German word for it. In our context, a foreign word is a word that is rarely used in common parlance. Restaurant is not a foreign word, but congruence is
Common abbreviations such as "e.g.” You don't have to explain. I wouldn't use them at all, but that's a matter of taste. On the other hand, you should not use rare abbreviations if they are not easy to remember. DRK for German Red Cross and BRK for Bavarian Red Cross is still memorable. For lesser-known abbreviations, I recommend spelling out the word or using part of the term. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are easier to remember than WCAG because we can remember words, or at least word sounds, more easily than abbreviations. In order not to keep repeating this somewhat unwieldy term, we can speak of "the guidelines" after the first mention or of "the guidelines" if there are no other guidelines mentioned in our text.
Try to avoid passive constructions and subjunctive moods. Actively formulated sentences appear livelier and clearer. Make active sentences. You can often do this by dragging the verb as far forward as possible. But it is also helpful to put the persons involved in the foreground. Such formulations are almost automatically active.
Avoid nested subordinate clauses because they distract the reader from the heart of the sentence. Such subordinate clauses can usually be recognized by the commas or dashes. Either the statement is important enough to be put in a main clause or it can be deleted.
Do not add subordinate clauses. Attached subordinate clauses can usually be recognized by commas or dashes. Most of the time, a subordinate clause is a new thought, violating our principle: one sentence, one thought. The same applies here as for intermediate clauses.
lists and enumerations
Avoid long lists in the body text. Often the reader doesn't realize until the middle of the sentence that you list several facts and has to read back to memorize these facts. The meaning of the list often only becomes clear at the end of the sentence. In addition, lists form visual landmarks in long texts.
A list can also be stylistically consistent. For example, it should only contain positive or only negative statements; mixing both makes it difficult to understand. "Say 1. Yes to life and 2. No to smoking!". In general, positive statements are easier to understand than negative statements.
Lists and enumerations should not become too extensive. In general, it does not make sense to enumerate even the most unimportant facts. Especially readers who are unfamiliar with the subject will have trouble grasping the gist or remembering the important facts.
A text should be precise and concrete instead of vague and abstract. Instead of “persons with disabilities”, either specific persons or specific groups such as blind persons are usually meant. Instead of "persons with disabilities" write "the deaf Mr. Müller". Avoid reducing a person to their disability or background. This often happens when you don't always want to write "Mr. Müller" and instead say "the deaf one", which reduces the person Müller to his deafness. Don't treat persons as objects, victims, or heroes, treat them as persons.
At this point we need to strike a balance between understandability and inclusiveness, inclusive language is not always descriptive and should still take precedence over understandable but discriminatory language.
Try to formulate it as positively as possible, i.e. avoid double negatives, for example. If someone is "not for it," then they are against it. The phrase "he will not vote against" obscures the intention of that person, he can agree, abstain or stay away from the vote.
If you have read too many official texts, expressions such as "damage" or "noted" creep in. Such expressions belong in the editor's manual under terms to avoid. They make the text impersonal and abstract.
Other formulations from official jargon are: "to be unable", "to be available" or "to have the opportunity". These formulations can almost always be replaced by "can", "cannot" or "have", which loosens up the text considerably.
If you tend to use such terms, you should get a checklist with which you can check your texts. The problem is that you read your own texts rather superficially, you always see the mistakes of others better than your own. That's why it's helpful to have a checklist of all the constructions you want to avoid.
Abbreviations and foreign words are often used, especially in the social sector. Most persons do not know what is behind integration assistance or SGB II. Of course, it makes sense or is even mandatory to speak of unemployment benefit II or basic security instead of Hartz IV. However, you encounter different problems when your clients do not understand these terms or cannot find what they are looking for because they do not know the correct term.
So if you don't use the terms on your website that your clients are looking for, it's unlikely they'll find the content they're looking for. One solution is to simply use both terms in the text: you can write, for example, "Unemployment benefit II is granted under Hartz IV".
Avoid mixing up positive and negative terms. Negative growth is a loss for those who use this cover-up prose from press releases or annual reports in order to deliberately confuse the reader.
A controversial point is acting objects. Websites or brochures cannot explain anything because only living beings can act or behave. I see it a little more relaxed: the users know, of course, that a website doesn't explain anything, but that they can find enlightening information there. Otherwise, complicated constructs are often necessary in order to avoid a simpler and often more understandable formulation: "You can read about it in the brochure...", "You can find out about it on the website...". It is a logical, not an orthographic problem. Therefore, choose the form that is most understandable for the reader.
Spelling and Grammar
Check for correct spelling and grammar. This has several advantages: If you don't write correctly, you give the impression that you are either working sloppily or have no respect for the reader. But there are also very practical reasons: Many readers get stuck on misspelled words, so typos disturb the flow of reading.
It is of advantage if you do not write the text in the browser but in a word processor. Thanks to the integrated spell checker, you can quickly find common typos. You can also use autocorrect so that you can have the program automatically correct words that you frequently misspell. Update: All browsers have now a spell checker integrated.
Unfortunately, the spell checker in word processors isn't very good. If you write a lot of texts, I recommend purchasing a program like Duden Korrektor in Germany, which can be integrated into many word processors. The Papyrus Author software is also helpful; the Duden Korrektor is included in the program and a style check is also integrated. The Language Tool program can also be of help, it is free.
Many persons don't know when to write hyphenated words. A simple rule is to hyphenate long and infrequent words: "Schiff-Fahrts-Gesellschaft". However, they can write the word autocatalyst together because it is not excessively long and consists of familiar words.
The eye recognizes letters in groups, depending on the font size and distance, it can recognize between three and five letters at a time. In the case of frequently occurring words, this is often enough to guess the entire word. The further reading process serves to confirm what has been guessed. Hyphens can also be helpful here to prevent incorrect recognition. When you read co-author, your first thought might be koala, but co-author might be a lot easier to spot. There are a number of these false friends. So with long words, pay attention to whether reading the first three to five letters could result in the wrong meaning of the word.
A text should be structured logically. Each form of text follows a certain dramaturgy: the message or report begins with a sentence that summarizes the essential information. A report, a feature or a story should arouse the desire to read on with the first paragraph.
What all good texts have in common is that they are structured logically. First come the basics, then the specifics. You go from the inside out or from the outside in. Regardless of how the text is structured, you should not jump between the different levels. Exceptions apply to literary texts or reports and features, where the jump between the temporal levels can be a stylistic approach.
You can use a simple structure within a single sentence. This includes that noun and verb are at the beginning of the sentence and are not torn apart. Written language favors constructions in which the noun comes at the beginning of the sentence and the verb at the end. In the case of long sentences, the reader only finds out what it is about at the end. In the worst case, the end of the sentence can change its entire meaning.
You can use commas to structure a longer sentence. This gives the reader the breathing space they need to process the first part of the sentence. If you read the text aloud, you will find that you almost automatically take a breath at the comma. Therefore, commas are not per se bad for comprehensibility. It often makes more sense to end a long sentence with a comma instead of avoiding them altogether and thereby creating strange sentence constructions.
The avoidance of sub-clauses or sub-notes with brackets or dashes is also part of the comprehensibility. Such annotations disrupt the flow of reading because they divert the reader from the common thread of the text.
For a longer sentence, pull the main statement as far forward as possible so that the reader can quickly get to the heart of the matter. It is bad form to put the action before the acting subject. The sentence "The editors' association draws a negative balance on ..." is easier to understand than "The editors' association draws a negative balance on ...".
You can apply the same principle to paragraphs. Bring the main message as far forward as possible and push less important information further back in the paragraph.
A text often has to answer the W-questions: who, what, why, where and when. This does not apply to all, but to many texts. Specifically, it is about naming responsibilities or circumstances and not describing them. Important information such as event dates, the names of persons or places should be at the beginning of the text. Information boxes are an ideal way of offering them in a compact form.
There are differences between the individual text forms: A typical press release is expected to be structured according to the inverted pyramid. The most important information is at the beginning and is arranged in descending order of importance. At the beginning, an information text summarizes what the text is about, while a literary text should build tension with the introduction.
In journalistic texts or reports, the inverted pyramid is used to structure texts. The most important thing is at the beginning and the information is arranged in descending order of importance. This is also in the interests of accessibility.
The visual aids such as headings, lists, tables and graphics not only help our readers but also ourselves. They help to structure the thoughts and put them in a logical order.
Most readers are not willing to read a ten-page text on the screen. A text is at its optimal length when you can't take anything away without degrading the quality of the text. A text should be as short as possible and as long as necessary. Unnecessary embellishments or philosophical excursions should be avoided.
Work with visual examples. Your reader should get a concrete idea of what you are writing about. The example must be close to the reality of his life.
Show instead of explaining. Try to clarify abstract content with vivid examples.
Always think of your texts from the user's perspective, the question is whether your users understand what you want to convey to them. For a rather dry subject such as presenting a brochure from the social sector, you can pick up two or three examples from the content that could be important from the perspective of the interested party. Nobody can do anything with the basic security according to Book II of the Social Code. But everyone has a precise idea of what kind of information they can use, and they recognize this best from concrete examples. Therefore, choose examples that are as close as possible to the real life of your users.
Special case I: Gender and plain language
The topic of gender-appropriate language presents us with special challenges in connection with Plain language. Every conceivable variant worsens readability and comprehensibility for inexperienced readers. I explained this in more detail in the article Gender and Accessibility .
The possibilities are manageable:
- You can still gender - the flexibility of the Plain language
allows it. I recommend the variant with the * as in employees
• You don't change and explain why you don't change at the beginning
of the text or in a separate text.
Politically correct language is rather difficult from the point of view of comprehensibility. The terms are often hardly known outside of specialist circles, the concepts behind them are not understood.
Another problem is that the formulations rarely remain constant. New terms arise, which in turn are only known in specialist circles and are not understood by many readers.
In case of doubt, the most understandable language should be chosen. If you use terms that the reader is unlikely to be familiar with, these terms must be explained at some point.
Official language and fad language can frustrate the reader: Official language such as "challenge", "requirement", "process" and so on often arouse negative associations in the reader and should therefore generally be avoided.
Fashion slang or hipster slang is often used by nonprofits, digital enthusiasts, and others in a particular milieu. In a way it is a sociolect, a language that distinguishes social milieus from one another. Typical terms of this milieu include terms like innovation, dynamic, agile and so on. This also includes the numerous English terms that are often thrown in: meeting, connected, brain storming, business... The target group of the Plain language does not feel addressed and will probably stop reading the text.
Academic language means above all the typical language of social scientists. This language, too, can only be understood in specialist circles and is often not understood or rejected by the target group. If you have to use this language in texts, explain it to the person concerned in understandable words if possible.