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How to Use Plain Language to Communicate Clearly

OK, be honest with yourself. You’re a smart soul, but how easily can you translate this phrase into plain English: “gastrointestinal dyspepsia”?

Wendy J. Meyeroff

Now, now — no cheating. Don’t copy and paste it into Google search. I’m about to translate it for you, just as I do when I teach classes in understanding and using plain language.

In class, my next step is telling the students about a medical writing class I took years ago. Our teacher “translated” that intro phrase to “acid reflux.”

“Oh!” you’re probably screaming. “That’s understandable.”

Like you, everyone was practically applauding the teacher’s insight. But that’s because the students were either health professionals or well-educated folks providing health or science communications. I’m the latter, and I’d already been in my field for a decade when I took this class. I caught the teacher after class and said:

“I loved this, but I am concerned with the message that ‘acid reflux’ is the simplest translation for gastrointestinal dyspepsia.”

“It is.”

“Well, no. What’s wrong with ‘heartburn’?”

Stunned silence … and then he admitted he’d have to add that the next time he taught.


What you just read is one of the key issues when it comes to translating complex or specialized content into plain language in any industry: Who is your audience, and what is their educational level? Are you writing marketing — or other materials — that’s going to upper-echelon management types, or at least all college graduates? Then your words can be at about a 10th-grade level — sophisticated, but not too academic-sounding.

But what if you’re mostly addressing people you know are only likely to be reading at a sixth-grade level? We used to say that’s the level for most website content; now some even suggest fourth grade. Wouldn’t heartburn then be more feasible?

There’s another issue beyond education: Is English your audience’s native language? Reading complex materials can be very difficult for even the well-educated when English is their second language.  

I see so many places where legal documents must be provided in Spanish, French, Chinese (and/or other Asian languages), Russian — the list goes on. When a different language is needed, remember that even simpler English phrasing is, too.


What if your work includes corporate communications, and you have to explain the employee website for reporting issues like sexual harassment? That’s not so much a legal issue as a tech one, because it means you and perhaps the IT and/or HR folks have to be sure a user manual is easily understandable — especially if you’d like to reduce the need for in-house IT folks or external help calls.

Same for health issues. Any time your firm can make health care information easier to understand, the fewer challenges you’ll face. Successfully using plain language can cut down on feedback like “I thought I had benefits for XXXX!”

Then of course, there’s traditional legal lingo. Why must a contract include words like “wherefore,” which seems to have been used in almost every legal doc since the beginning of time? Does the legal world have something against the word “why”?


I must admit that I have not seen a scientific study on how much plain language reduces pages. But I’ll bet that study could be done.

I recently got a contract that was eight pages long. It was written with lots of “wherefores” and “party of the first part” lingo. I actually got to a section where two segments were all in caps. The first segment ultimately related to ABC company’s legal responsibilities; the second noted which were mine.

“There’s another issue beyond education: Is English your audience’s native language? Reading complex materials can be very difficult for even the well-educated when English is their second language.”  

Well, I asterisked that first segment and added something like this: “Since ABC company owns the entire document upon its final approval, it is legally responsible for its use from then on, especially if it makes any changes without Meyeroff’s approval.”

That’s it. That’s basically how I translated it. (And the client accepted it.) Any real reason that couldn’t be the type of phrasing not only regarding ownership, but any contract pointers? Far less paper!


If you’re worried that your hierarchy would find such translations legally dangerous, you’re not alone. So I leave you with this dialogue, which is essentially what I heard at yet another writers’ conference.

The National Institutes of Health was teaching the benefits of communicating any clinical material — whether on a PowerPoint slide or in a journal article — with storytelling. The presenters showed and stressed plain language. In the Q&A, this arose:

“Well, this is great, but I don’t think our legal department would let us do it this way.”

Heads nodded.

Answer: “Well, ask them how many lawsuits they think they’d have if people could no longer say they hadn’t understood the company’s directions or their personal responsibilities.”

Sometimes keeping it simple really is the best, clearest form of communication.