2020 and the importance of being plain

2020 has left many of us sadder and wiser. One thing this year has taught us is that clear communication is vital – even a matter of life and death. A quick google reveals endless articles about ‘confusing’ and ‘unclear’ messaging on Covid. While before we might have seen the idea of plain language as an ideal, now it is clear that organisations that deal with the public need to communicate in a way that is clear, understandable on a first reading, and unambiguous.

In Ireland this new recognition of the importance of plain language ties in with the commitment in the 2020 Programme for Government to the use of plain language in communications from the public sector.

Plain language is not just easy to read, it allows readers to do three things:

find what they need
understand what they find the first time they read it
use what they find to meet their needs.

So, plain language is not some airy-fairy concept – it has real practical value. Organisations that adopt plain language see cost savings. People who deal with state bodies have easier (and fairer) access to services and easier engagement.

The field of plain language is surprisingly complex for such a new area of study. But for writers who want the basics, following these guidelines is a good place to start:

1 Keep sentences as short as possible
2 Be concise and direct
3 Use familiar words instead of unusual words
4 Use the active rather than the passive as far as possible
5 Keep the reader in mind at all times
6 Keep plain language principles in mind at the design, writing and editing stages
7 Make sure that text is well organised and logically laid out.

I wrote this piece in plain language, and the Microsoft Word readability tool gave it the following scores:

• Flesch reading ease: 59.5
• Flesch-Kincaid grade level: 8.6
• Passive sentences: 0.0%

A score of 59.5 ranks the piece just under: ‘easily understood by 13- to 15-year-olds’. This is a reasonable score for a piece aimed at a professional audience. The grade level score of 8.6 means that around 80% of people in the US would understand the text. The calculations are basic, but they give a useful idea of how readable a piece of text is.

Read more:

World Health Organization: Plain Language, https://www.who.int/about/communications/understandable/plain-language
Government of Ireland, Plain English Style Guide for the Public Service, https://www.ops2020.gov.ie/app/uploads/2019/09/Plain-English-Style-Guide-for-the-Public-Service-2.pd...
Plain Language Network: https://plainlanguagenetwork.org/

Image source: M Nurromad, Pixabay

Words of the year: 2020 leaves dictionaries speechless

Lockdown has been named word of the year by Collins Dictionaries.

However, Oxford English Dictionaries says 2020 is ‘a year that has left us speechless’. They found themselves unable to pick just one word as they usually do. Instead they have picked several, based on their analysis of billions of words in newspapers, books, web pages and other written content.

The words chosen for 2020 include Covid-19, WFH, lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubbles, keyworkers, furlough, Black Lives Matter and bushfires. OED also says that use of the word pandemic increased by an incredible 57,000% in 2020.

Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, said: "I've never witnessed a year in language like the one we've just had. The Oxford team was identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for Word of the Year at any other time.'

Guidelines for writing inclusively

People working in the community and voluntary sector and in the public sector need to pay particular attention to writing inclusively.

Writing inclusively means writing to include all humans, and not excluding individuals or groups whether by accident or design. Inclusive writing is important because: ‘Language is a reflection of the attitudes, behaviours and norms within a society. It also shapes people's attitudes as to what is “normal” and acceptable’ (European Commission).

According to the National Disability Authority of Ireland, language should ‘reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people’.

Research has shown that designating people by their individuality and common humanity first helps other people to view them in a more neutral way. Relevant attributes include gender, race, disability, religion and sexual orientation.

What we want to do is talk about different groups of people in a way that acknowledges differences but remains neutral. The following sets out some general guidelines on how to talk about various groups of people in an inclusive way.

1. Research how people prefer to be identified

Research how the people in the communities you are writing about prefer to be identified. Avoid terms that remove personhood, or that define people by a disability or similar attribute.

2. Refer to the specific attribute only when necessary

This guideline speaks for itself; if an attribute has no relevance in the context, then leave it out.

3. Use person-first language

An important tenet for human rights organisations is that labels are for files, not for people. When we need to refer to specific attributes of groups, we emphasise the person first and the attribute after: ‘people with disabilities’ and not ‘the disabled’; ‘people from low-income backgrounds’, not ‘the poor’.                            

4. Use positive language

When we use a phrase such as ‘non-Catholic’, we are defining someone by what they are not rather than what they are. Instead of using ‘non-Catholic’ use Buddhist, Methodist or whatever is relevant. Rather than ‘non-Irish’ use the person’s place of origin.

5. Avoid stereotyping

All of us tend to stereotype to some extent, depending on our life experiences, and we do so unthinkingly, without any intention of excluding people. However, negative stereotypes should be avoided. Gender is a common aspect of stereotyping: ‘The doctor updated his records’; ‘The secretary rushed through her work.’ Avoid stereotyping by social class and age group also.

6. Dealing with particular attributes


Gendered language should be used only when it is relevant to know the gender of the person being discussed. Other aspects include using neutral nouns where possible, for example, ‘chair’ rather than ‘chairman’. The singular ‘they/their’ can be used to replace the more awkward ‘he/she, s/he, his/her’.


The basic rule applies when referring to older people: the best way is to refer to them simply as ‘older people’. This focuses on personhood in a way that other phrases do not.


Regarding race, again refer to it only if it is necessary to do so. Say ‘Black person’ rather than ‘Black’, but if you do this then also say ‘White person’. It is not that we want to remove all references to race, because race is an important aspect of identity. Rather we want to treat it as an attribute like any other, to be used in the same way for people of all races.

Disability or illness

Many terms that were used for a long time in the area of disability are outdated and no longer acceptable. Be aware of paternalism when discussing disability, and make sure to use person-first language. We now speak of ‘people with an intellectual/physical disability’ rather than people being ‘mentally handicapped’ or ‘disabled’. It is also best to avoid loaded words such as ‘suffers’ or ‘victim’.


To some people, paying attention to inclusive language is political correctness gone mad. To others it is a genuine attempt to discuss issues in a way that avoids being hurtful. It seems worthwhile to make that effort.