Plain Language: Understanding and being understood

Plain Language (‘Einfache Sprache’) makes it possible to understand texts as easily, quickly and completely as possible. This benefits readers and creators alike. We explain what Plain Language is exactly, where and how it can be used and what needs to be considered when using it.

Work instructions and guidelines are not adhered to, letters from authorities and banks remain unread, descriptions of risks and side effects in the package leaflet are at best skimmed over, and the only words understood in local public transport terms and conditions are “train station”.
You can probably think of other examples that show that everyday language and texts are by no means always clear. Especially not for people with weak linguistic and reading skills. Be it because of cognitive impairments, because of a reading and spelling difficulties or because the national language is spoken as a second language.

In Germany alone, this affects around 13 million people: citizens, patients, customers, employees, passengers and so on. To reach them all, it is good practice to use Plain Language. This means creating texts with a clear structure, a logical order and words that are unambiguous and quickly understood.

Plain Language enables people to participate in society, make their own decisions and realise their potential. Because people can only take effective and productive action if they understand the contents and contexts involved.

What is Plain Language?

Plain Language is a simplified version of standard language that aims to ensure that texts can be understood as easily, quickly and completely as possible. It focuses on the needs of the readers and involves basing linguistic decisions on them. For example, complicated sentence structures or little-known foreign words are avoided.

Plain Language is already used in many countries in various areas – such as forms, information brochures, educational and health materials – to ensure that information is accessible to a broad target group.

What is the difference between Plain Language (‘Einfache Sprache’) and Easy-To-Read Language (‘Leichte Sprache’)?

Easy-To-Read Language is appearing more and more often as an option in language settings, especially on websites. However, Easy-To-Read Language is not the exact same thing as Plain Language. Both aim to make it easier for people who, for various reasons, have a low level of ability to understand texts in standard language. However, they address different target groups.

Therefore, Plain Language, broadly defined, is aimed at people with low literacy and language skills. These people have learned to read but have never progressed beyond a certain basic level and often do not enjoy reading because of this.
On the contrary, Easy-To-Read Language focuses on people with cognitive impairments, meaning that it also makes it more accessible.

Easy-To-Read Language has rules, specified by Inclusion Europe. These rules include, for example, using short sentences, simple words and images. Yet Plain Language is a more general term. It is used in different countries and contexts to describe similar principles of simplification and intelligibility of language.

What should be taken into account with Plain Language?

Although there are no strict rules for Plain Language, it is good practice to follow some basic standards. The following principles of Plain Language can be used as a guideline:

  • Simple vocabulary: Use short and common words, avoid technical terms, complex expressions and foreign words. Explain difficult words and separate excessively long compound words logically with hyphens to clarify units of meaning. Refrain from negations and explain abbreviations or write them out. Avoiding synonyms and naming terms consistently in the text also aids understanding.
  • Clear structure: Present information in short sentences and in a logical order. Paragraphs and headings help to structure the text. Avoid interjections and convoluted sentences and use only one comma in a sentence if possible.
  • Concrete and descriptive language: Avoid abstract terms and use concrete examples and images instead.
  • No ambiguities: Write clear sentences and avoid unclear or ironic phrases, double meanings and complex sentence structures.
  • Active language: Use the active rather than the passive voice.
  • Short expressions: Use a maximum of 15 to 20 words per sentence.

In addition to its use in texts, Plain Language also helps in speech and conversations. Therefore, here are some tips for Plain Spoken Language:

  • Speak slowly and clearly
  • Do not use irony.
  • Do not speak “between the lines”
  • Make sure that your audience can ask questions at any time.

What are the advantages for companies and organisations?

Using Plain Language to be understood by as many people as possible offers companies and organisations many advantages in a wide range of areas:

It generally increases accessibility
By using Plain Language, you ensure that texts and information are accessible to a broad target group, meaning also people with cognitive impairments, reading and language difficulties, and for people who are not native speakers of the language being used in the text. Plain Language breaks down barriers and promotes inclusion.

Better communication with customers
Plain Language texts help to generate sales and make product information easier to understand. This can strengthen trust and increase customer satisfaction. In addition, companies can increase their reach and address potential customers they might not otherwise reach.

Better access to skilled workers and labour
The shortage of labour and skilled workers is a pressing problem. And it continues to worsen. Plain Language can help in many sectors of the economy that are desperate for employees, such as the care, medicine and crafts sectors. It can facilitate immigration of non-native speakers and access to education and training in general.

Compliance with legal requirements
In many countries, companies and organisations are now legally obliged to provide information in an easily understandable form. An example is the General Data Protection Regulation, which states that appropriate measures must be taken to provide the data subject with all information “in an accurate, transparent, intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language”. (However, the GDPR itself does not always express itself simply)

Visible corporate values
Companies and organisations that use Plain Language signal their social responsibility and commitment to inclusive communication. They express values such as openness, transparency and customer orientation. The result is an improved image among prospects and customers, and a more positive perception among potential employees.

Conclusion: Plain Language, a broad impact

Plain Language is not used to present content in a shortened or oversimplified way. Its use does not question the intelligence or ability of the reader. It addresses all target groups, meaning that it is not only aimed at people with special support needs. Rather, it is incorporating more and more aspects and areas of public, factual communication. It is not limited to individual areas of society, but can be used in every subject and field of action.

Plain Language helps as many readers as possible to understand texts easily, quickly and completely. It helps companies and organisations increase their accessibility, meet legal requirements and be understood by as many people as possible.

If official letters and forms, operating instructions, technical documentation or the return conditions in online retail are easy to understand, everyone benefits. And I am sure you can think of many more examples.

Do you need to revise your texts in Plain Language or Simplified Technical English? Then talk to us.

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