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Garbl's Plain Language Writing Guide


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Using suitable words

Familiar words| Useless words | Redundancy| Jargon| Technical words| Noun phrases| Abbreviations| Capitalization| Inclusiveness

Strive to be human in your writing. A formal, bureaucratic tone too often creates distance between you (or your organization) and your readers.

Plain-language writing uses the clearest words possibleto describe actions, objects and people. That often means choosing a two-syllable word over a three-syllable one, an old familiar term instead of the latest bureaucratic expression and sometimes, several clearer words instead of one complicated word.

Use words your readers are likely to understand. Base your choice of words on what will be clearer for your reader. To help you draft easy-to-understand documents, below are some guidelines on your choice of words. Also see the Guide to concise writing for concise alternatives to overstated, pompous words; wordy, bureaucratic phrases; and redundant phrases.

  • Instead of:
    Subsequent to the passage of the subject ordinance, it is incumbent upon you to advise your department to comply with it.
  • Use:
    After the law passes, you must tell your staff to follow it.

Use simple, everyday, familiar words

Choose common English words with clear meanings: explain a probleminstead of address a problem; invisible, openor obviousinstead of transparent.Especially if your document may have many readers with limited English proficiencyor be translated for them, choose words with just one or a few clear meanings. Also avoid puns and words with double meanings: votersinstead of grassroots; availableinstead of free(if that's what you mean).

Here are other examples of simple, precise words and phrases you might substitute:

Instead of ...

Try using ...




arrive at, gain, get, grasp, meet, reach, win


so, thus

dialogue (as a verb)

meet, talk


communicate, deliver, distribute, give, scatter, send, send out, share, spread

endeavor (as a verb)

carry out, strive, take on, try


hasten, help along, hurry, rush, send, speed up


after this, from now on, in the rest of this document, later


before, before this, earlier, until now

impact (as a verb)

change, have an effect, increase, influence, risk, stimulate

implement (as a verb)

carry out, do, finish, fulfill, impose, put into effect, set up, start


excessively, unduly, unusually

institute (as a verb)

begin, create, found, set up, start


get, buy, earn, exist, gain, hold, stand


best, greatest, ideal, most, peak

per annum [Latin]

annually, a year, each year, yearly

per capita [Latin]

a person, each, for each person, per person

per diem [Latin]

a day, daily


examine, inspect, read carefully orthoroughly, study


list, order, rank, set priorities

reference (as a verb)

mentioning, refer


will ormust




confirm, imply, prove, show, suggest, verify; oraid, help; orencourage, mandate


close, end, exit, finish, limit, stop, wind up


in it, in that matter, there


make use of, use


in what, in which, where

For more shorter, simpler alternatives to overstated, bureaucratic and pompous words.

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Cut out unnecessary, useless words

Use only as many words as you need. Use fewer structural wordswith little meaning: becauseor sinceinstead of due to the fact that; ifinstead of in the event that. Tighten verbose (or wordy) textby replacing too complex statements with shorter terms or single words:  geography, not the field of geography; tends to, not have a tendency to.

Here is a sample list of some alternative words for common, wordy expressions:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

adequate number of

acceptable, enough, satisfactory

a certain number of


a great many


apart from

besides, in addition

at the present time


be advised that

note that, please note that

by means of

by, using, with

despite the fact that

although, even though, though

during the time

during, when, while

excessive number of

too many

for the purpose of

for, of, to

from time to time

at times, occasionally, sometimes

if this is the case

if so

if this is not the case

if no

in lieu of

for, in place of, instead of

in many cases

many, often

in the event of

if, when [ notif and when]

it is probable that


it would appear that

clearly, plainly, obviously, seemingly

a majority of

most, most of

once in a while


on the part of

among, by, for, of

prior to

ahead of, before

pursuant to

by, under

subsequent to

after, following, later, next, then

this office

I, me. us, we

under the provisions of

by, under

until such time


with reference to, with regard to

about, for as for, on

For more simpler, concise alternatives to wordy, bureaucratic phrases

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Cut redundant ideas, words and phrases

Avoid using wordy phrasesand multiple words with similar meaningsor unhelpful redundancies. For example, try protrude, not protrude out; either ifor when, not if and when; result, not end result; square, not square in shape; experience, not past experience; demolished, not totally demolished; visible,not visible to the eye; completeor finished,not completely finished; four hours,not four hours of time; 5 feet high,not 5 feet in height.

Later, go through your document and ask yourself if you're repeating information needlessly. If so, combine your thoughts or remove the matching ideas.

Here is a sample list of alternative words for some redundant phrases:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

added bonus


advance notice


at this juncture, at this point in time

now, this week, today

city of Renton

Renton [ butCity of Renton to refer to the government]

close proximity

close, near

current status


during the hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

10 feet in length

10 feet, 10 feet long

filled to capacity

filled, full

first and foremost


future plans


general consensus

agreement, consensus

join together


month of November


12 noon


past history


period of time

period, time

postpone until later


refer back


thoroughly understand


totally dedicated, totally devoted

dedicated, devoted

total number


For more concise replacements for redundant phrases.

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Avoid using jargon

Using unfamiliar jargon and bureaucratese can cause problems because your reader may not understand it. Jargon also can distract your reader from your real message. Write boots, not leather personnel carriers; telephone, not telephonic communications instrument; advocate for the homeless, not homeless advocate; next toor near,not adjacent to; make easyor helpor lead,not facilitate.

Be wary of trendy, fashionable expressionssuch as downtime, synergy, downside and touch base. Try inviting people into a planning process, not a visioning process. Trendy terminology could confuse or annoy readers and date it. Similarly, avoid old-fashioned sayingsand formal phraseslike grist in the mill, pig in a poke, as per your letter (instead, try according to your letter),  notwithstanding (instead, try despite or still).

Also, avoid terms that could be misunderstood by readers who use English as a second language or by people translating a document from English into another language. Such terms include  military and sports vocabulary- level playing field, end runs, targets, game plans, sticky wickets, tackle; and  regionalisms and slang- that dog don't hunt; jury-rigor jerry-built.They also include  literary and cultural allusions- heart on his sleeve, move mountains, an offer he can't refuse;and  metaphors- a steep learning curve, a piece of cake, pave the way for.

  • Instead of:
    All illumination on these premises must be extinguished upon departure.
  • Use:
    Please turn out the lights if you're the last to leave.

Avoid or explain technical words or difficult terms

Whenever possible, avoid words that your readers do not know. Every occupation and interest group has special terms. If you must use a technical term, define it--either by giving a definition, explaining the term or by giving an example. If suitable for your publication, think about including a glossary of technical words and difficult terms.

Also, avoid technical terms used with nontechnical meanings: Use  startinstead of initialize; work with, meetor callinstead of interface with.And avoid rare or fancy words used within your work group or profession ,like nexusand infrastructure.

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Don't change verbs into nouns

Use verbs to suggest the most significant actions in your sentences. Nouns created from verbs are harder for the reader to understand. They also give the sentence an impersonal tone: explain, not provide an explanation; decide, not make a decision; decide(or findor work outor discover), not make a determination.

Use verbs to suggest the most significant actions in your sentences. . They also give the sentence an impersonal tone: , not ; , not ; (or or or ), not .

Also, use verbs instead of abstract nouns- considerinstead of consideration, adjustinstead of adjustment, recommendinstead of recommendationimproveinstead of improvement.

When you write a noun that comes from a verb, see if you can turn it back into a verb by removing endings like -tion, -enceand -ment. Use the clearest, crispest, liveliest verb to express your thoughts.

  • Instead of:
    The requirementof the department is that employees work eight hours a day.
  • Use:
    The department requiresemployees to work eight hours a day.
  • Instead of:
    The team's role is to perform problem definitionand resolution.
  • Use:
    The team's role is to defineproblems and resolvethem.
  • Or:
    The team's role is to defineand resolveproblems.

Here are other examples:

Instead of ...

Try using ...

bring to a conclusion

assume, close, decide, end, finish, infer, settle

carry out an evaluation

check, evaluate, test

conduct a review of


conduct an investigation

explore, find out, look at, look into, research, study

exhibit improvement


file an application


gave an explanation


give a justification for


give assistance

aid, backing, help, relieve, support

have an objection


have knowledge of, have need for

know, need

have reservations about


hold a meeting


make a proposal

propose, recommend

offer a suggestion


perform an assessment of


placed an order


reach an agreement, reach a conclusion

agree, conclude

send an invitation to


take action


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Avoid chains of nouns

Chains of nouns are strings of two or more nouns used to name one thing. They are often difficult for a reader to understand.

Consider defining, explaining or revising noun phrases. Will the meaning of a noun phrase be familiar or clear to your readers or translator? If not, explain it in context, revise it to make its meaning clear, or define it in a glossary.

Noun chains take some effort to untangle. They lack connecting words--such as of, for, about, inand the possessive 's--that would clarify how the nouns relate to one another.

  • Instead of:
    World population is increasing faster than world food production
  • Use:
    The world's population is increasing faster than its food production.

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Use acronyms and abbreviations carefully

Remember that not everyone may know what the acronyms and abbreviations stand for. Avoid nonessential abbreviations, Latin abbreviations, uncommon contractionsand obscure acronyms,especially in documents that may be translated for or used by readers with limited English proficiency. Also, avoid informal nonstandard spellings and shortened words.

Sometimes, putting an acronym or abbreviation in parentheses the first time you use the proper term can be useful. Then you can use the acronym in the rest of your text. But even if you use that technique, avoid filling a document with various obscure acronyms. Also see abbreviations and acronyms in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

When in doubt, spell it out.

Here are other examples:

Instead of ...

Try using ...


also known as


as soon as possible, soon [or be specific about time]

could've, should've, would've

could have, should have, would have


for example, such as


and so on, and the rest


that is

hi, lo

high, low

lb., oz.

pound, ounce



mightn't, mustn't

might not, must not

n.a., N/A

not applicable, not available, none


repetition, representative






that will




veteran, veterinarian

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Use capitalletters sparingly, consistently

Avoid unnecessary capitalization. Capital letters are an important cue to readers and translators that a term is a proper noun, not a common noun. Use capital letters to identify proper nouns-- the formal, official, unique or popular names of a specific person, organization, place or thing. Also use capital letters to begin sentences, headings, the important words in publication titles, and letters in some abbreviations and acronyms.

Random, excessive capitalization for other purposes hinders reading and may confuse readers. Do not capitalize the first letter of a word or words in a phrase simply to highlight themor to express their importance. Translators typically translate common nouns and leave proper nouns in English.

Also see capitalization and related entries in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

Use inclusivelanguage

Sexist writing builds a barrier between you and half your readers. Use sex-neutral termsby avoiding words that suggest maleness is the norm, superior or positive and that femaleness is nonstandard, subordinate or negative. For guidelines, see sex, sexism in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

Readers with disabilitiesalso face barriers--in communications and facilities. For guidelines in using suitable language, see disabled in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

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