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Neat, Plain Language

The main topic on this page is plain English, and guidlines related to it. There are many sides to scientific skills and writing needs, and writing needs in general. It pays to be polite. Expressing and presenting ideas well enough are sides to be learnt too - an ongoing project that matters.

Writing adjustments

Adjustment Levels
Fig. 1: Four adjustment levels of writing

Figure 1 divides planned, factual writing into four levels, for convenience. The idea is that some sides to writing take more than others, and that the easiest parts are those of fixing periods, wordings, and phrases. There is much counsel on those sides to writing on this page, and also a few sidelights into values expressed in writing, highlighted by some teachings of Buddha.

Clear Language Takes a Clear Mind

There are many sides to solid language, many are above just being plain and accurate. Being truthful is one. Being considerate is another. Clarity is fine too.

Being scholarly and scientific suits Buddhism, which encourages rational takes and does not depend on blind beliefs. It is called sober, realistic, undogmatic, compatible with science. But Buddhism goes far beyond the goals of basic science too; it aims at helping happy, successful living on and up, aiming at complete liberation (awakening).

Test things in terms of cause and effect, teaches Buddha. Whatever is unskilful, leading to harm and ill, should be abandoned; whatever is skilful, leading to happiness and peace, should be pursued. You can apply such guidance to things you do. One quick test may not do for a whole life, but you can keep at it to be better able to discern what is worth including in your lifestyle.

Over 2500 years ago Buddha formed many such principles that regularly apply. He normally does not seek to persuade anyone. In fact, he talks against such bravado attempts. Also, his doctrine of Right Speech (part of the Noble Middle Way) posits that using language in a moral, non-degrading way is not to be left out. Third, many of Buddha's conclusions are based on agreeable first principles. In his outstanding Kalama Sutta he also advocates that we examine the logical and illogical reasons mustered by others or ourselves and sources very well, and to our advantage. "Do not believe a thing wilfully or blindly; make sure as best you can," is a key message. Another is not to trust authorities wholly just because they are authorities. Many persons confuse truths with statements by authority figures, and that is being quite blind: One is not to trust appearances blindly and foolishly either. At least scientists try not to do that: [Evidence]

Further, Buddha stressed the need for good language skills, and the value of abstaining from foul language. Being skilful is a significant side to his general teachings. Express with aplomb, then.

Savoury Standards

  • Right Speech is abstaining from lying; abstaining from tale-bearing; abstaining from harsh language; abstaining from vain talk.
  • The truthful one avoids and abstains from lying, being reliable, worthy of confidence. He speaks the truth, and is devoted to the truth.
  • The truthful one is not a deceiver of men. At a meeting, or among people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king's court, and called upon and asked as a witness to tell what he knows.
  • The truthful one never knowingly speaks a lie, not for the sake of his own advantage, or for no other person's advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatever.
  • The truthful man of concord abstains from harsh language. He speaks gentle words that are soothing and aim at the heart, courteous and dear.
  • Let no evil words escape from your lips.
  • Penetrate others with dear thoughts that are wide and deep enough.
  • Speak at the right time, in accordance with facts. Tell what is useful, tell about the law [dharma: law, teachings] and the discipline. Speech at the right moment, accompanied by arguments, moderate and full of sense, is a treasure: It is called right speech.

(From the discourse "To Cunda the Silversmith," Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta, AN 10.176)

True and decent words may be dear, at least to the wise, yet some are otherwise . . .


A wise person is marked by good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct and good mental conduct, says Buddha in "The Further-factored Discourses (Anguttara nikaya)" 3.2. What he says about speech, applies equally well to written communications. Some vital principles of science are lined up with his teachings. But the rest of this page is concerned with common, accepted technicalities only.

(Main source: ◦"To Cunda the Silversmith", in Anguttara nikaya 10:176. More:



Fifteen Tips - The Plain Language Commission

  1. Consider carefully your purpose and message before starting to write – clear writing and clear thinking go hand in hand.
  2. Wear the readers' shoes – how would you feel in their position?
  3. Plan a structure that will help the reader, perhaps with headings, bullet-point lists, and a pithy summary of key points at the start.
  4. In letters and emails, tell the reader clearly, concisely and courteously what has happened, how the situation stands, and what they can expect next.
  5. Match your writing to the needs and knowledge of the readers – some of them may be baffled by official jargon and procedures.
  6. Write sentences that average 15–20 words.
  7. Keep the word order simple. In most sentences, put the doer early and follow it with an active-voice verb.
  8. Take pride in using everyday English, sound grammar and accurate punctuation.
  9. Where appropriate, use 'I', 'we' and 'you' to make the writing more human.
  10. Maintain the flow by starting some of your sentences with connectors like 'but', 'however', 'so' and 'because'.
  11. Use commands when writing instructions.
  12. Cut unnecessary words.
  13. Check that the facts and judgement are right. Nothing compensates for inaccuracy or illogicality.
  14. Pre-test your high-use documents with typical readers.
  15. Apply common sense and scepticism to all guidance about writing.

There are many similar lists, some with fewer points, and some with more points than fifteen. The next one is recommended far and wide.

Plain English Guidelines of 2013

Style and grammar

  1. Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15 to 20 words.
  2. Use words your readers are likely to understand.
  3. Use only as many words as you really need ["writing tight"].
  4. Prefer the active voice unless there's a good reason for using the passive.
  5. Use clear, crisp, lively verbs to express the actions in your document, and avoid using noun strings.
  6. Use vertical lists to break up complicated text.
  7. Put your points positively when you can.
  8. Reduce cross-references to the a minimum.
  9. Put accurate punctuation at the heart of your writing.
  10. Remember the average reading age of the population: about 13 years.
  11. Avoid being enslaved by writing myths.
  12. Try to avoid sexist usage.
  13. Use good grammar – but you don't need to know hundreds of grammatical terms.
  14. In letters and emails, fusty [musty] first sentences and formula finishes.

Preparing and planning

  1. Plan before you write.

Organizing the information

  1. Organize your material in a way that helps readers to grasp the important information early and to navigate through the document easily ["using reader-centred structure"].
  2. Consider different ways of setting out your information.

Management of writing

  1. Manage colleagues' writing carefully and considerately to boost their morale and effectiveness.

Plain English for specific purposes: emails, instructions, the Web, legal documents, and low-literacy readers

  1. Take as much care with e-mail as you would with the rest of your writing.
  2. Devote special effort to producing lucid and well-organized instructions.
  3. Don't waffle on the Web – put the big news early and make the style and structure punchy.
  4. Apply plain English techniques to legal documents such as insurance policies, car-hire agreements, laws, and wills.
  5. For people with low literacy, cut out the fine details, be brief, and test your document with the real experts – the readers.


  1. Use clear layout to present your plain words in an easily accessible way.


  1. Check your stuff before the readers do.

- from Martin Cutts: Oxford Guide to Plain English, 4rd ed. (Oxford UP, 2013, p. xxxi-xxxii).

The guidelines of the fourth edition differ a bit from the guidelines given in the previous three editions. The biggest changes are additions at the end of the list. Added guidelines reflect changing media and adaptations to email writing and Web presentations. Rephrasings improve a few of the older guidelines.

The title of the book was changed with its second edition (2004) from Plain English Guide.

Drop "insecurity padding"

Prefer a short word to a long one ... unless the longer word is better, and a single word to a phrase if brevity makes for clarity. [Scu 56 - See also The Complete Plain Words by Gowers)

Introductory and connecting phrases which can usually be deleted without altering the meaning of the sentence:

From this point of view, it is relevant to mention that ...
In regard to ... , when we consider ..., it is apparent that ...
As far as ... is concerned, it may be noted that ...
It is appreciated that ... in considering ...
It is of interest to note that ... of course ...
In order to keep the problem in perspective we would like to emphasize that ... there is no doubt that ... not least of these ...
In conclusion, in relation to ..., it was found that ...
From this information it can be seen that ... in so far as ...
It is known from an actual investigation that ... as follows:
This report is a summary of the results of an enquiry into ... which, as you may remember, ... with respect to ...
It has been established that, essentially, ... in the case of ...
The evidence presented in this report supports the view that ... in the field of ... for your information ... in actual fact ... with reference to ... in the last analysis

[From Barrass 1978, 39]

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Circumlocution: the use of many words where few would do better

Circumlocution Better English
in virtually all sectors of the almost everywhere
maintain a high degree of activity move about a great deal
in black and white only in black and white
if at all possible if possible
peer groups equals
I myself would hope I hope
I would have said I think
you are in fact quite correct you are right
mechanisms of a physiological nature physiological mechanisms
on an experimental basis by experiment
on a dawn to dusk basis fram dawn to dusk
on a regular basis regularly
working towards a unanimous situation trying to agree
by any actual person in particular by anyone in particular
to show the same high level of application to kep trying
an oral presentation a talk
the reading and learning process reading and learning
outside the kidney itself outside the kidney
several are known to influence several ... influence
not longer than 20 000 to 25 000 words in length no more than 25 000 words
measures on purely local terms local action
a maximum depth of ten metres ten metres deep
ten metres in length ten metres long
over a period of the order of a decade for about ten years
for a further period of fifteen years for another fifteen years
the roads were limited in mileage there were few roads
they utilize for sustenance they eat
during the month of April in April
at the pre-school level the under fives
on a theoretical level in theory
on the educational front in education
in the classroom situation in schools
in the school environment in schools
They are without any sanitary arrangements whatsoever. There is no sanitation.
... in establishments of a workshop rather factory character ... in workshops ...
An increased appetite was manifested by the rats All the rats ate more
How we speak depends on what speech communities we are actually operating in at the time. How we speak depends on the people we are with.
It consists essentially of two parts. It has two parts.
We are in the process of making We are making
Degree courses are in the process of development. Degree courses are being planned.
Experiments are in progress to assess the possibility of using We are trying to use
It was observed in the course of the demonstration that We observed ...
There is really somewhat of an obligation upon us We should ...
The committee was obviously cognisant of the problem. The committee was aware of the problem.
An account of the methods used and the results obtained has been given by ... Their methods and results are described by
In no case did any of the seedlings develop lesions. None of the seedlings developed lesions.
Such is by no means the case. This is not so.
... proved fatal in most cases. ... killed most of them.
Even when the class is engaged in reading and writing activities Even when the children are reading and writing ...
At the other end of the educational spectrum In primary schools

[See Barrass 1978, 70-71]

Circumlocution: some phrases which are commonly used when one word would do better

Circumlocution Better English
In view of the fact that because
on account of the fact that as
if it is assumed that if
in spite of the fact that although
a sufficient number of enough
at this precise moment in time now
at that point in time then
a greater length of time longer
during the time that while
on a regular basis regularly
it may well be that perhaps
with the exception of except
using a combination of from
of a reversible nature reversible
which goes. under the name of called
with the result that so
in all other cases otherwise
are found to be in agreement with agree
carry out experiments experiment
conduct an investigation into investigate
bring to a cenclusion finish
arrive at a decision decide
make an adjustment to adjust
make an examination of examine
undertake a study of study
take into consideration consider
afford an opportunity to allow
in conjunction with with
after this has been done then
on two separate occasions twice
the question as to whether whether
it is apparent therefore that hence
in view of the foregoing circumstances therefore
give positive encouragement to encourage
have been shown to be are
try out try
open up open
aimed at for
count up count
check on check
later on later
prior to before
seal off seal
in between between
inasmuch as since
a number of several
proved to be were
in regard to about
in all cases always
in order that to
in most cases usually
at a later date later
a proportion of some
a great deal of much
at an early date soon
in the nature of like
not infrequently often
in the event that if
to say nothing of and
has an ability to can
a small number of few
a large number of many
by the same token similarly
for the purpose of for
in the vicinity of near
in connection with about
until such time as until
spell out in depth explain
in this day and age now
at the present time now

[From Barrass 1978, 72]

Avoid the unnecessary qualification of words

absolutely perfectperfect
the actual numberthe number
an actual investigationan investigation
not actually trueuntrue
almost uniquenot unique
almost perfectimperfect
by means ofby or using
a categorical deniala denial
completely surroundedsurrounded
conclusive proofproof
cylindrical in shapecylindrical
deliberately chosenchosen
an essential conditiona condition
facing up tofacing
they are in factthey are
few in numberfew
green in colourgreen
a positive identificationan identification
small in sizesmall
streamlined in appearancestreamlined
stunted in growthstunted
swampy in characterswampy
quite impossibleimpossible
quite obviousobvious
hard evidenceevidence
real problemsproblems
realistic justificationjustification
they really arethey are
really dangerousdangerous
the smallest possible minimumthe minimum
valid informationinformation
very necessarynecessary
very relevantrelevant
very truetrue
wholly newnew

[Source: Barrass 1978, 61]

Express writing

Avoid if you canUsually prefer
alternate[maybe the word you need is 'alternative']
are of the same opinionagree - see 'woolly words' below
as already stated[omit]
as can be seen from Fig. 1, growth is more rapid growth is more rapid (Fig. 1), or Fig. I shows that growth is more rapid
as far as our/my observations are concerned, they show my/our observations show
as far as this species is concerned, itthis species is
as follows:-[omit 'as follows' and the dash; the colon is enough]
as for the experiments, they arethese experiments are
as of now now, from now on
as shown in Fig. 11 Fig. 11 shows that
as regards this species, it this species is
assist(-ance)help, aid
at some future time later
at the present moment, at the present moment in time, at this time now
author(s), the I/we
bright red in colour bright red
case patient
[check the "colourless" past participles: accomplished, achieved, attained, carried out, conducted, done, effected, experienced, facilitated, given, implemented, indicated, involved, made, obtained, occurred, performed, proceeded, produced, required] [avoid; use a meaningful verb instead]
commence begin, start
comparatively[avoid, unless you are making a real comparison of one item with another]
concerning this effect, it may be borne in mind that [omit]
conducted inoculation experiments on inoculated
considerable amount of much
considerable number/proportion of many, most
contemporaneous in age contemporaneous; the same age
created the possibilitymade impossible; /enabled (a person); / allowed (an action)
data facts, results, observations
decreased number of fewer, less
decreased relative to less than, lower than
demonstrate show
due to the fact that because
during the time thatwhile
elevatedraised, higher, more
encountered frequently (e.g. 'this effect was encountered frequently')common ('this effect was common')
equally as wellequally well
exhibit; X exhibits good stretch propertiesshow; X stretches well
fewer in numberfewer
following (the operation) after (the operation)
for the reason that because, since
from the standpoint of according to
goes under the name of is called
greater/higher number of more
hospitalizeadmit to hospital
if and when[use one of these prepositions alone]
if conditions are such that - -if
in a considerable number of casesoften
in all casesalways
in connection withabout, for
increased relative tomore than
in few casessometimes, rarely
in excess ofmore than, above
in order toto
in regard to / in relation to / in respect of / in terms of / in the case of / in the context of[use the appropriate preposition, e.g. in, for, about, with]
in the event thatif
in the present communicationhere, in this paper
in this connection the statement may be made that[omit]
in view of the fact thatsince, because
it has long been known that [omit]
it is apparent, therefore, that hence, therefore
it is of interest to note that [omit]
it is often the case that often
it is possible (probable) that possibly (probably)
it is this that this
it may, however, be noted that nevertheless, but
t may be said that possibly
it seems to the present writerI think
it will be seen upon examination of Table 5 that Table 5 shows that
it would thus appear that apparently
large number(s) ofmany
large proportion of much, most
lazy in character lazy
lesser extent, degree less
level concentration, content
literature, e.g. It is reported in the literature that others have reported that
made a count counted
majority of most
mental patients patients with mental disorders
moment in time time
much [omit]
multiple several, different
number of several, some
of large size large
of such strength that so strong that
on the basis offrom, by, because
owing to the fact thatbecause,
parameterindex, criterion, factor, characteristic, measure, value, variable
pertaining to on, about
prior to; prior to that time before; before that
proportion ofsome
relative[avoid, unless you are calculating a real quotient]
relative to ('This letter is relative to')about
respectively[avoid, unless you are sure you are using the word correctly, as in 'Absorption measurements for cadmium vapour at 50, 70, and 100 nra give cross-sections of 0.7, 0.9, and 1.2 fM2 , respectively.']
sacrifice (experimental animals) kill
serves the function of beingis
significantlymuch, appreciably, definitely [but correct and desirable if statistical tests of significance have been made]
similar in every detail the same
small numbers of few
sophisticated advanced, new, expensive
species in which the hairs are lacking hairless species
square in shape, square-shapedsquare
sufficient number of enough
subsequent to after
terminate end
the test in question this test
the tests have not as yetthe tests have not
the treatment having been performed, after treatment
there can be little doubt that this isthis is probably
there is, there are[often unnecessary: e.g. change 'There is much work being done on . . .' to 'Much work is being done on . . .']
there will always be a miscellany of quality in terms of illustrationsthe quality of illustrations will always vary
they are both alike (similar) they are alike (similar)
throughout the entire area throughout the area
throughout the whole of the experimentthroughout the experiment
two equal halves halves
using[test whether it is an unattached participle; if so, try 'by', with,' 'by means of']
utilize, utilizationuse
very [omit]
while although
with reference to about
with regard to in, to
[woolly words: area, character, conditions, field, level, nature, problem, process, situation, structure, system][avoid: change to more precise words]

[From O'Connor and Woodford 1978, 93-98]

Prefer a short word to a long word if the short word is more appropriate

LongwindedPrefer this

[See Barrass 1978, 56]

Phrases that scientists should not use

Introductory phrasesGoing against affectation
As is well knownI think
It is evident thatI think
It is perhaps true to sayI do not know what to think
It is generally agreed thatSome people think
All reasonable men thinkI believe
For obvious reasonsI have no evidence
There is no doubt thatI am convinced
It is likely thatI have not good enough evidence
As you knowYou probably do not know
As you knowThis is superfluous
As mentioned earlierThis is superfluous
Tentative conclusionsPossibilities
So far as we knowWe could be wrong
It is not necessary to stress the factI should not need to tell you
The most typical exampleThe example that best suits my purpose

[Barrass 1978, 30]


  • Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
  • Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat)
  • No sentence fragments.
  • Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.


Plain english, neat language, dear talk and Buddha's guidelines, Literature  

Axelrod, Rise B., and Charles R. Cooper. The St. Martin's Guide to Writing. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010.

Barrass, Robert: Scientists Must Write. London: Chapman and Hall, 1978.

Barrass, Robert: Scientists Must Write. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.

Blamires, Harry. The Penguin Guide to Plain English: Express Yourself Clearly and Effectively. London: Penguin Books, 2000.

Brooks, Brian S., James L. Pinson, Jean Gaddy Wilson. Working With Words: A Handbook for Media Writers and Editors. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010.

Collins. Collins Improve Your Writing Skills. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2009.

Cutts, Martin. Oxford Guide to Plain English. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. (3rd ed. 2009. 2nd ed. 2004, and 1st ed. named The Plain English Guide, 1995)

Gowers, Sir Ernest. The Complete Plain Words. 3rd ed. Rev. Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut. London: Penguin, 1987. ⍽▢⍽ Greenbaum and Whitcut revise with care Bruce Faser's enlarged, revised edition of 1973.

Kane, Thomas S. The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing. New York: Berkley Books, 2000.

Manser, Martin. The Facts on File Guide to Style. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

O'Connor, Maeve, and F. Peter Woodford. Writing Scientific Papers in English. London: Pitman Medical, 1978.

Peat, Jennifer. Scientific Writing: Easy When You Know How. London: BMJ Books, 2002.

Ritter, R. M. The Oxford Guide to Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Silverman, Jay, Elaine Hughes, and Diana Roberts Wienbroer. Rules of Thumb: A Guide for Writers. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Stevens, Matthew L. Subtleties of Scientific Style. Thornleigh, NSW: ScienceScape Editing, 2007.

Strunk, William, Jr, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Williams, John, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Revised by Joseph Bizup. 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2014.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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