Updated Nov. 29, 2005

Plain Language Association International

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Samples of
Plain Language Rewrites
and Organizational Change


PLAIN Conference Presentation:

Surviving Unplain Language

Advice on how to respond when you get a document you don't understand.


From a life insurance application form (submitted by Ron Scheer, www.saywhatyoumean.com):


If you fail to comply with your duty of disclosure and we would not have entered into the contract on any terms if the failure had not occurred, we may void the contract within three years of entering into it. If your non- disclosure is fraudulent, we may void the contract at any time. Where we are entitled to void a contract of life insurance we may, within three years of entering into it, elect not to void it but to reduce the sum that you have been insured for in accordance with a formula that takes into account the premium that would have been payable if you had disclosed all relevant matters to us.


If you fail to disclose any relevant matter and we would not offer you insurance if this matter were known, we may within three years (1) void the contract or (2) reduce the sum for which you have been insured. If your nondisclosure is fraudulent, we may void the contract at any time.

From an insurance company form letter:

We have recently implemented an enhancement to our computer system that will enable us to provide better service to our valued customers. This has resulted in a slight delay in the processing of your renewal. The difference you will notice is in the payment schedule. Your annual policy premium has been divided over 11 (eleven) months, and as a result your monthly payment will have increased due to the reduced number of monthly installments.

Rewritten in plainer language:

We are a little late in sending your renewal documents because we have made a change in our computer system in order to provide better service. Your annual premium will now be divided over 11 months instead of 12 so the monthly payment will increase slightly.

From a travel agent:

METHOD OF PAYMENT: All quotes are for cash or certified cheque only. A personal or company cheque will take 10 working days to clear. Documents cannot be released until we are in receipt of cleared funds. Payment within 7 days of departure may incur courier charges.

Rewritten in plainer language:

We have indicated a price based on your paying us by cash or certified cheque or credit card. If you pay by a personal or company cheque, we will want 10 working days for your cheque to clear your bank. We will not provide your tickets or other travel documents until then. If we receive your payment by personal or corporate cheque less than 7 days before your scheduled departure, we will charge you the cost of sending your documents by courier.

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British plain-language expert Martin Cutts commented on one scientific writing habit, refusing to use personal pronouns:

... the statement "it is considered that fluoridation of drinking water is beneficial to health" leaves readers wondering who considers this -- the writer, wider scientific opinion, or both. Usually readers can make an intelligent guess from the context, but this means extra work for them and they will sometimes guess wrongly. No scientists worth their salt want their readers to engage in guess-work... The prohibition (against personal pronouns) can lead to woolliness, as in this example:

During the inspection, load checking of several tendons in the upper stressing gallery of G4 was witnessed. Several points were raised with the company about this procedure. These were: the numbering of the tendon anchorages, the numbering of strands for load checking and the calibration of the feeler gauge used to determine when tendon lift-off occurred. The company reported that all the load-checking procedures were under review. The latter point was accepted and would also be incorporated into the procedure. These changes will be reviewed by the author during the next site visit.

and the rewrite

During the inspection, I watched load checking of several tendons in the upper stressing gallery of G4 and raised the following points with the company about this procedure: the numbering of the tendon anchorages, the numbering of strands for load checking, and the calibration of the feeler gauge used to determine when tendon lift-off occurred. The company reported that all the load-checking procedures were under review but accepted the last of these points and said they would incorporate it into their procedures. I will review these changes during my next site visit.

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From newspapers on Clinton's speech explaining why the U.S. attacked Sudan and Afghanistan with cruise missiles:

They are seeking to acquire chemical weapons and other dangerous weapons.

The evidence was apparently lacking for a more convincing and much stronger statement rewritten without the words "seeking to":

They are acquiring chemical weapons and other dangerous weapons.

From a newspaper article about the NCAA's concern about aluminum baseball bats:

In response to the concerns, the NCAA announced that the baseball rules committee will recommend a maximum batted-ball exit velocity of 93 mph and a change in the size and weight specs of non-wooden bats beginning with the 1999 season.

This rewrite is much better with a list than a rambling sentence:

Responding to the concerns, the NCAA announced new recommendations from the baseball rules committee, to begin with the 1999 season:

  • Batted-ball exit speed maximum of 93 mph
  • Change in size and weight specifications for non-wooden bats

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From a brief of a few years ago. Widgets inserted to protect the guilty (submitted by Judge Mark P. Painter, Cincinnati, Ohio, www.judgepainter.org):

Due to the fact that the plaintiff-appellant had up to this point in time supplied an insufficient number of widgets, defendant-appellee specified that, in the event that an insufficient number was supplied in the future, the contract would be held to be terminated, and deemed to be null and void and of no further effect. (55 words)


Because Smith Co. had not supplied enough widgets, Jones Co. said that, if this happened again, Jones would terminate the contract. (21 words)

From A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, a close call...

He said he wanted a settlement that would provide for the economic security of the families, and for their medical bills in the future.

Perhaps clearer:

He said he wanted a settlement that would make the families financially secure as well as pay their future medical bills.

And a recent headline from a Virginia case:

"It's a $25 fine for driving while applying mascara."

This reverses the onus on the wrong behavior ands makes it sound like:

  • it is the applying of mascara that is unlawful, instead of the driving under sub-optimum conditions; or
  • the primary activity was applying mascara which was interrupted by driving.

Rewritten, the headline should properly read:

"It's a $25 fine to apply mascara while driving."

From a Clarity Award Winner from the State Bar of Michigan's Plain English Committee:

"[Name] informed you of the procedures for calculating interest for insufficient estimates. If the enclosed invoice(s) include charges for insufficient estimates, a detailed insufficient estimated [sic] used to calculate these charges is also enclosed."

Changed to:

"How to pay your bill: To avoid penalties as well as further interest, you must pay this bill by its due date."

And another Michigan Award Winner:


I give my Agent the power to exercise or perform any act, power, duty, right, or obligation whatsoever that I have or may hereafter acquire, relating to any person, matter, transaction, or property, real or personal, tangible or intangible, now owned or hereafter acquired by me, including, without limitation, the following specifically enumerated powers. I grant to my Agent full power and authority to do everything necessary in exercising any of the powers herein granted as fully as I might or could do if personally present, with full power of substitution or revocation, hereby ratifying and confirming all that my Agent shall lawfully do or cause to be done by virtue of this Power of Attorney and the powers herein granted.


I give my agent the power to do anything that I have a right or duty to do, now or in the future.

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Technical Writing

Here's a dialogue box I encountered when setting up my e-mail (submitted by Sally McBeth, Toronto, Ontario, Clear Language and Design):


Check for messages every 30 minutes. If my computer is not connected at this time, connect only when not working offline..


Check for messages every 30 minutes when I am working online.

New! Here's an original, written about an electronic toll system by a trained engineer, as they like to call themselves (submitted by Mona Albano, Toronto, Ontario):


Make sure that the account holder's name on the account is the same as the name of the customer to whose account the transaction should be attributed.


Make sure that this account is for the right customer.

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