Mind your language

Communicate clearly

Use plain EnglishYou 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.

  • choose your words deliberately
  • craft your sentences carefully
  • use grammar correctly

To communicate clearly, know your readers; know your audience. So, 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.
Cut the jargon
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.

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.

Look out for new words and interesting phrases. Put colour into your conversation.  Read books and increase your vocabulary to help you communicate clearly.

Hints to help you communicate clearly

Guard against needless words

Needless words

Be on the guard against needless words. In other words, be succinct. Discard redundant words. “Our Company is facing up to the threat of being closed” can be simplified to read “Our Company faces closure.”

Avoid linking two words with the same meaning when one will do the job.  Do you really need to speak of ‘component parts’?  ‘Free gifts’? Aren’t all gifts free? Watch out for anything that is ‘exactly the same’.

Similarly, avoid oxymorons which pair words that contradict each other:  ‘new and improved’, ‘poor little rich girl’.  It’s enough to confuse the ‘living dead’!

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?

Use active verbs

Use active verbsUse active verbs, rather than passive. In the active voice, the focus is on the subject, who performs the action of the verb. “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

Concrete words represent objects that we can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. Words like house, car, horse, and tree are all examples of concrete words.  It’s easy to grasp an idea if it’s tangible and you can picture it in your mind.

Avoid abstract words when you can.  They tend to be vague.  Abstract words communicate important thoughts in our speech and writing, but they can be tricky because they have many meanings.  They may convey different things to different people and in different contexts. Take the word ‘bad’ for instance. If someone said to you that some food is bad, it could mean the food isn’t very tasty, is bad for your health or is rotten. Why not be more specific? Use a concrete word and admit the food is rotten.

Use bite-size sentences

Use bite-size sentences

Keep sentences 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.”

Avoid making nouns into verbs

Beware of making nouns into verbs or vice versa. Has Jack Smith ‘authored’ a book? No, Jack ‘wrote’ a book.  Or, was Rachel Jones ‘guested’ to speak at the New Technology Conference?  No,  Rachel was ‘invited’ to give a speech.

Such Americanisms are becoming more common in English usage. But I think we must thank the Americans for introducing words like ‘babysitter’ and ‘teenager’.  The Peanuts cartoonist, Charles Schultz, popularised and may have coined the words “security blanket”.

Choose short Anglo-Saxon words

Most of our English words originate from the early Anglo-Saxon settlers.  Later the Normans brought us their Latin-based language in 1066.  Thanks to our invaders, we often have two words with exactly the same meaning.  While Latin words tend to be long and cumbersome, Anglo-Saxon words are short and concise.   For instance, to ‘perambulate’ is to ‘walk’.  Why not go for the snappy option?

So 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 clumsy Latin nouns!

Use indicative verbs

Be factual. Use the indicative mood, that is verbs which express a statement of fact.  For instance, ‘He’s the richest man in town’.

Try to avoid the vaguer subjunctive mood. This expresses ideas that are imagined, wished or possible and include a suggestion, command, or condition that may be contrary to fact.  ‘If I were a rich man …’ is subjunctive.

Convert numbers into pictures

Convert numbers into pictures

Round off figures and convert numbers to pictures. For instance, 8.5 metres is the length of two buses.  Or, an audience of 112 – enough people to fill two double-decker busses.

By the way “three times greater than” is the same as “four times as great as”. Yes, really! Know what you are saying.

Be specific

Be specific and particularise if you possibly can.  Try to avoid generalising. Of course, there are times when you can’t, as I have on this page.  All the rules I’ve listed are generalisations.  But for each I have added specific examples or images to make the rule easier to understand.  As such, they become more meaningful.  Good examples illustrate and make clear what you are saying.

Personalise

People like to know peoplePeople 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.

You can often improve a bigger story by giving it a human face.  The politician advocating a policy may be more interesting than the policy itself.

Tell a story

Journalists know the value of a good story.  It has a momentum of its own and you can simply state what happened in its chronological order.  Look for one that illustrates the point that you want to make. Illustrate rather than explain. A good story connects you with your audience.  You can use your story to inspire or persuade.

Take time to read some of the classical story tellers.  Among them is Dorothy L Sayers, famous for creating the aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.  You can find more about her in my series on outstanding men and women in the history of East Anglia.

Snapshot sentences

As with concrete words, good imagery evokes the five senses.  Construct your sentence to stir up these senses in your reader’s mind.

Which of these two sentences paints a richer picture? ‘The boy pushed the wheelbarrow up the hill’ or ‘The young boy struggled to push the wobbly wheelbarrow up the steep hill’.

As the songwriter Dixon DeVore said: “Paint pictures with your words. And never, never, put down the brush.”

Steer clear of acronyms

Steer clear of acronymsAcronyms are a shorthand that uses the first letter of each word in a phrase or series of words.  For instance, ATM stands for Automatic Teller Machine.

But, acronyms can confuse.  Is a PC a personal computer or a police constable?  Does AA stand for Automobile Association or Alcoholics Anonymous?

To avoid confusion, explain and spell out the full wording in your first reference and then use its short form later.

Avoid weasel words

Weasel words, or weasel phrases, are usually attached to the beginning of a sentence in an attempt to make statements appear more truthful or meaningful.

Avoid weasel wordsFor instance, “researchers believe” and “most people think” are designed to give more weight to a statement or argument. However, these terms are at best ambiguous and vague.

Name a specific person or source to whom the statement or opinion can be attributed and let your readers make up their own minds.

Another problem with weasel-worded statements is that some writers use them to be intentionally misleading.

For instance, “Many people claim that the world is flat.”   Well, precisely who says?

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. Communicate clearly and your message will be easily remembered.

Some examples you might like to read

Take a look at some of my other articles. I have written a definitive essay on news values for journalists.  This gives you more ideas on how to reach your audience and help you to communicate clearly.

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. 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!