Plain language

ALPHA. This guidance is provided as a general starting point for anyone designing online content, or working on digital projects that involve designing new content or reworking old content. It is a work in progress, and we welcome feedback and suggestions to improve the advice. Contact us with your feedback.

Plain language and readability

Only 16% of new Zealand adults are considered to have high literacy levels. In addition people may:

  • be unfamiliar with the subject matter and related jargon
  • have poor computer skills.

Use simple words

Use simple words where you can. It makes:

  • sentences easier to scan
  • content more accessible.

Here are some lists of words that can usually be replaced by a simpler alternative:

Testing reading ease

There are a number of online tools that check the readability of your writing by scanning things like the length of sentences, grammar, and use of complex words.

Each tool operates slightly differently, and the results they give may vary slightly, but they should be similar.

Common indicators are:

  • Flesch reading ease: A score of 65 or above is thought to be plain English. This isn’t set in stone though — sometimes specific terms can drag the reading ease down, so aim for a score of at least 60.
  • Grade: Grade levels vary around the world. Use the grade as a guide and aim for a reading age level of 12.

Don’t use nominalisations (abstract nouns)

Nominalisations are nouns formed from verbs.

They often end in: –ion, -ment, -al, -age, -ing, -ance, -ant, -dom -ence, -ity, -ism

Always try to use the verb rather than the nominalisation.

For example:

  • “provide” instead of “make provision for”
  • “apply” instead of “make an application to”
  • “consider” instead of “give due consideration to”.

Here’s a handy list of nominalisations and alternatives you could use instead.
Nominalisations cheat sheet

Active and passive voice

Active voice makes your sentences shorter, clearer and more direct. Take notice of the verbs in your sentence.

With active voice the subject of the sentence performs the action.
Margaret [subject] sent [verb] the request.

With passive voice the subject of the sentence receives the action.
The request [subject] was sent [verb] by Margaret.

Active sentences are always clear about the person or thing who is responsible for ‘doing something’ — that is the agent. Passive sentences do not always identify an agent.

Redundancy

Get rid of any words or phrases that are not essential to the meaning of the page.
Redundancy can include:

  • redundant words — using multiple words to express the same idea
  • redundant synonyms — using two or more words with the same meaning
  • weasel words — vague words, generalisations.

Jargon

Don’t use:

  • buzzwords
  • cliches
  • technical language
  • government noun strings like 'business capability initiative included an overview of its core service delivery framework and its disaster management communication matrix'.