Mind your language

Communicate clearly­

You have something to say? Why confuse, annoy or alienate? Decide exactly what you want to communicate. Speak and write clearly, using plain English, so that everyone can easily understand. Know your readers; know your audience.

Use plain English

Put yourself in their shoes and choose your words carefully. Be direct and speak plainly with words they can grasp. If they cannot understand you, why should they listen to you?

Use appropriate words–simple, everyday words. Call a spade a spade, not a digging implement, and certainly not an excavation solution. If you can take advantage of a popular expression to illustrate a point, do it. Make your sentences easy. Don’t use jargon. If you’re forced to use a technical term, explain what it means.

Remember any fool can make an idea sound complicated; it takes rigorous and careful thought to keep it simple.

cut the jargon

Plain English is direct and concise. It creates a better impression on the reader or listener. And so you and your project will appear friendly and helpful.

Some hints to help you on your way:

  • Be positive. Don’t be negative. Leave your audience with a clear picture of what you want to say. See how the word ‘not’ gives the very message you want to avoid. Tell your children ‘not’ to cross the road, and what do they do? Why give them ideas you never intended them to have?
  • Be specific and particularise. Avoid generalising. If you really must, then explain and give evidence.
  • Use active verbs, rather than passive. “The Council will meet next Thursday” is more lively and to the point than the weaker and stuffy passive voice, “A meeting will be held by the Council next Thursday”. But occasionally the passive voice has its uses. For instance, it can soften your message. It’s more tactful to say, “Your bill hasn’t been paid” rather than “You haven’t paid your bill.
  • Use concrete words, not abstract. It’s easy to grasp if it’s tangible. Don’t be vague.
  • Beware of words that end with -ness, -tion, -ious, -ful, -tive, -ance or -ence. They often signal passive constructions or betray abstract thinking.
  • Choose short Anglo-Saxon words rather than long Latin ones – and haven’t we collected a lexicon of cumbersome, obscure words over the centuries? And remember it’s ‘£5 a head’, not ‘per capita’ – unless, of course, your sole aim is to demonstrate you’re a person of pretension, virtuosity and verbosity. Oh dear, three more abstract nouns!
  • Use the indicative, not subjunctive. Keep your text factual. Avoid the hypothetical, doubted, supposed or what is feared true.
  • Give ‘for instances’. Good examples illustrate and make clear what you are saying.
  • Personalise. People like to know about people. So if you can make your point from a human interest angle, it’s more likely to be read. Your own experiences can add authenticity and authority.
  • And tell a story. Look for one that illustrates the point that you want to make. Illustrate rather than explain.
  • Good writers use snapshot sentences. As the songwriter Dixon DeVore said: “Paint pictures with your words. And never, never, put down the brush.”
  • Steer clear of acronyms whenever possible. Does AA stand for Automobile Association or Alcoholics Anonymous? If there is any doubt, explain and spell out the full name of the organisation in your first reference and then use its short form later.
  • Be on the guard against needless words. Be succinct. Discard the redundant ones. “Our Company is facing up to the threat of being closed” can be simplified to read “Our Company faces closure.” Watch out for ‘component parts’, ‘free gifts’ or anything that is ‘exactly the same’.
  • Avoid weasel words, small phrases, such as “some people say”. These words are usually attached to the beginning of a sentence in an attempt to imply its truthfulness.”Many people say that September is the driest month in the year.”Well, so it may be, but who says? The problem with weasel-worded statements isn’t that they are necessarily false; the problem is they imply something that’s difficult to substantiate, perhaps because it’s too vague, or even intentionally misleading.So name a person or source to whom the statement or opinion can be attributed and let your readers make up their own minds.
  • Use bite-size sentences. Keep them simple and short. Avoid too many sub clauses. Long-winded and complicated sentences can easily be misunderstood. “Good writers should aim to be punchy.” Or, to be more concise, “Be punchy.”
  • Beware of making nouns into verbs or vice versa. Has Jack Smith ‘authored’ a book? Or, was Rachel Jones ‘guested’ to speak at the New Technology Conference? Such Americanisms are not yet in common English usage, and I, for one, hope they never will be. But we are greatly indebted to the Americans for words like ‘babysitter’ and ‘teenager’.
  • Round off figures and convert numbers to pictures. For instance, 20.12 metres is 22 yards. Still better 22 yards is ‘the length of a cricket pitch’. Or, an audience of 160 – enough people to fill two double-decker busses. And remember “three times greater than” is the same as “four times as great as”. Yes, really!

And remember, keep it simple:

  • “Those who do not have pecuniary assets cannot have many options.” Put simply it means: “Beggars can’t be choosers!”
  • “Having been injured by clenched incisors, the victim is thereafter cautious” Why not say: “Once bitten, twice shy!”

Now you stand a better chance of being understood. And your message will be easily remembered.

And finally…

…get someone to proofread your work. You may be too close to what you’ve written to spot your own gobbledegook or long-windedness.

You may have sweated blood researching the content of your work. But don’t get too emotionally attached to it and be prepared to hand it over for editing before it reaches your readers.

If you have a few minutes, read this article again and let me know how you could improve it. I’m still learning too!