Writing in plain English

The UK Statistics Authority standards state plain English should be used:

Include an impartial narrative in plain English that draws out the main messages from the statistics.

Avoid language that needs to be “translated” by journalists or commentators into simpler English.

Plain English is clear language, with no jargon, that is understood by all readers. This is not “dumbing down” information, but opening up statistics and statistical commentary to everyone. Users do not stop understanding text because it is written clearly, but they stop understanding when it is complex. In fact, many expert users prefer simpler language as it helps them get the information they need quickly.

Do not use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. You can generally avoid this by breaking down what you are actually doing. Where technical terms cannot be avoided, they should be explained in the text, not just in a footnote.

Find out more about words to watch and words not to use.

To write in plain English, think about the following:

Who is your audience?

Unless you know otherwise, think of your audience as people who take an interest in your subject but have no detailed knowledge. Use your writing to guide readers through the subject and help them identify what is most important.

What are you going to say?

Think about what your readers want to know. You do not need to tell them everything. Use your opening paragraphs to:

  • summarise succinctly what you are writing about
  • tell readers what information they will find
  • put your research into context

Hemingway Editor is a useful online tool to see if your writing is clear and concise. Simply paste your text into the tool. It will report on its complexity, give it a readability grade and make suggestions for improvements.

Do not paste sensitive information or unpublished data into Hemingway – it is a security risk. Use the Flesch-Kincaid reading level tool in Microsoft instead.

You could use Hemingway retrospectively to look at your last bulletin or article and see how you could improve your writing in the future.

Hemingway Editor will not allow you to paste into it if opened in some browsers. We advise using Google Chrome.


Be concise

When writing:

  • try to limit each paragraph to one or two short sentences
  • be clear
  • avoid complicated sentence structures
  • stick to one idea or theme per paragraph
  • break up large blocks of text with subheadings

Be consistent

Be consistent in the way you write in terms of:

  • the style
  • the tone
  • the level of language
  • the terminology used and its explanation

Keep it short and simple (KISS)

KISS stands for “keep it short and simple”. This is the principle that information is more easily understood if language is kept simple.

Do not use two words where one plain word will do, and always choose the shortest appropriate words or phrases:

  • do not try to cram in too much information
  • stick to one main idea or statement per sentence, with no more than one or two supporting clauses
  • cut out unnecessary words; it makes the important facts more memorable
  • do not start two consecutive sentences with “The”, if you can avoid doing so

Avoid phrases such as “in the event of”, “by virtue of the fact that”, “the question as to whether” and “if the possibility exists”. Instead, use “if”, “because”, “whether” and “if possible”.

Use the active voice

Always use the active voice, not the passive.

“The statistics show…” not “This is shown by the statistics.”

Do not

Be ambiguous

Sentences that can be read in several different ways may be misleading.

Vivian worked on the development stage of the project and is now part of the policy group with responsibility for legislation.

The sentence reads as though the policy group is responsible for legislation. In fact, it is Vivian.

It should read:

Vivian worked on the development stage of the project and is now part of the policy group, where she has responsibility for legislation.

Make sure that there is no ambiguity in your writing, and that your meaning is clear.

Use repetition

Avoid using words or phrases more than once in the same sentence (strictly speaking, you should not repeat within paragraphs).

Similarly, do not repeat phrases such as “the Short-term Output Indicators” throughout your content. You could refer to them as “the Indicators”, or use a standard abbreviation (but try to avoid using too many abbreviations and acronyms).

Also avoid using words that repeat something already implied in the same sentence (otherwise known as tautology).

I might possibly
The Quarterly Report is produced quarterly

Use mismatched words and phrases

This is where a list of items does not match the verb used in the sentence.

This book examines the plans, decisions and talks held during the conflict.

The verb “held” refers to “plans, decisions and talks”, but you cannot “hold” a plan or a decision. To solve this problem, split the sentence into two parts and add another verb.

This book examines the plans and decisions made, and the talks held…

Use confusing sentences

Do not use sentences where a phrase qualifies the wrong part of a sentence.

Surrounded by enemies on every shore, Hitler reasoned that the British would soon surrender.

The sentence implies that Hitler was surrounded by enemies, which is incorrect. This is called a “dangling participle”.

The sentence should read: “Hitler reasoned that the British, surrounded by enemies on every shore, would soon surrender.”

Use jargon

Always use plain English and be wary of any words to watch or words not to use

We are constantly improving based on research and best practice. Any significant changes to our guidance are available on the Updates page.