Using Clear, Plain English

Some people think that when you write a business email, you should be as formal as possible, using long, old-fashioned words, jargon and lengthy sentences to impress your readers.

Actually, this is exactly the opposite of what you should do. It is unprofessional and even impolite. We will explain why below.

First, let's see an example of bad business English:

You are hereby requested that, in order to facilitate the application process, form 4B must be completed in full and returned to us at your earliest convenience.

This sentence contains 27 words. It contains archaic words, such as hereby. It contains awkward turns of phrase, such as at your earliest convenience. It does not sound friendly or polite. It sounds cold!

The plain English version of the sentence is simply this:

Could you please fill out form 4B and return it to us?

Our plain version contains only 12 words. It contains normal, everyday words that everyone can understand. It sounds polite and friendly.

The trend in the business community around the world is to use plain English. This trend has been accelerated by the casual nature of big technology companies.

Many years ago, people took a long time to craft business letters. They wanted to use unusual phrases and long sentences to show people that they were educated (in those days, not many people attended college or university). They also had a lot of time to read and to write correspondence.

Things are different these days. There is no need to show people that you are educated - the literacy rate is nearly 100% in most developed countries. People do not have time to read or write a lengthy email on a simple matter - they may need to read or write dozens of emails in a single hour. By using unnecessarily long and complex language, you are simply wasting their time. This is unprofessional and impolite.

In fact, to be polite in business writing, we can simply use words like 'please' and 'thank you'. Rather than being cold and stiff in our writing, we should strive to be friendly and positive. We should use sentences like this:

We really appreciate having you as a customer!

Here is a selection of tips for using plain English:

1 Sentence length

When you write an email, try to keep your average sentence length around 15 words. When you use a sentence of 25 or more words, most people need to read over it twice to understand the meaning.

2 Avoid jargon

3 Tend to use simpler words

For example, just use 'buy' instead of 'purchase'.

4 Avoid passive sentences

For example, instead of saying 'You are requested to...', just say, 'We would like you to...'

5 Say 'please' and 'thank you' to be polite.

6 Avoid old-fashioned words, such as herewith, herefore, henceforth, etc.

7 Write as you would speak

If the sentence sounds like it could be used in a spoken conversation, then it is a good word.

8 Remove unnecessary words and phrases.

For example, since these two sentences have the same meaning, the shorter one is the better one:

They will be staying for a period of two weeks.

They will be staying for two weeks.