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Cut Confusion, Use Plain Language

Cut Confusion, Use Plain Language

The following advice is based on recommendations by Translators Without Borders, whose members are currently engaged around the world in translation and interpreting for COVID-19 related needs.

Plain language writing is often a good choice for translations, or for texts that are likely to be translated. This is especially true during an emergency. Plain language reduces the effort required to understand a text, regardless of the reader’s background. During the current pandemic, we are all contending with uncertainty, rumors, anxiety, and urgency. Tangled sentences and imprecise terms can cause stress, waste time, and sabotage the efforts being made to efficiently address problems.

The main features of plain language writing and translation follow.

Active Voice

The active voice shows who is directly responsible for an action. Instead of saying, “The ointment is applied to the cut,” you say, “Apply the ointment to the cut.” It is clearer, and sets up accountability. Additionally, the active voice emphasizes the verb, which quickly focuses the reader’s attention on the necessary action.

Short Sentences

The plain language recommendation is to limit sentences to twenty words or fewer.  Most readers can comprehend longer sentences when they are well-written, but non-professional writers (such as manufacturers, technicians, doctors) express ideas more clearly in short sentences.

Accuracy of Key Terms

Do not leave gray areas in your explanations. If you have any uncertainty about the precise term to use, double check it, and if you can’t reach complete clarity about it, consider not using it. Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and rumors. And mistakes will quickly shred your credibility.

Consistent Terminology

Use one term for each concept, instead multiple words that have close meanings. This is not how you would write a literary essay, but for the kind of straightforward, clear communication we are talking about here, it adds ease. For instance, don’t use “disease” in one sentence, then switch to “illness” in another. Varied vocabulary is not an element of plain language because it can raise questions.

Concise Wording

Work hard to boil your sentences down to the essence. Again, aim for 20 words or less. But also look for ways to condense ideas, avoiding the trap of loose, sloppy explanations. It might be helpful to imagine you have to shout each sentence across a busy emergency room.

Plain language helps us focus on the most essential points of a text. During times when lives are at stake and the cooperation of groups is essential, this is a skill worth working on. Skrivanek is prepared to assist you in refining all your communications into plain language translations in dozens of languages.



J. V. McShulskis



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