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Clear Communication: A NIH Health Literacy Initiative

Plain Language

Introduction to Plain Language at NIH

Plain language is grammatically correct language that includes complete sentence structure and accurate word usage. Plain language is not unprofessional writing or a method of "dumbing down" or "talking down" to the reader. Writing that is clear and to the point helps improve communication and takes less time to read and understand. Clear writing tells the reader exactly what the reader needs to know without using unnecessary words or expressions. Communicating clearly is its own reward and saves time and money. It also improves reader response to messages. Using plain language avoids creating barriers that set us apart from the people with whom we are communicating.

Plain Language Act

President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (H.R. 946/Public Law 111-274) on October 13, 2010. The Act requires the federal government to write documents, such as tax returns, federal college aid applications, and Veterans Administration forms in simple easy-to-understand language…”
Read more (PDF - 156KB) External Web Site Policy

Part of the NIH mission is to reach all Americans with health information they can use and to communicate in a way that helps people to easily understand research results. The NIH fully supports the Plain Language initiative, which has its origins in a Federal directive that requires agencies to incorporate plain language elements in the development of communications materials for the public. The NIH is committed to the use of plain language in all new documents written for the public, other government entities, and fellow workers.

Celebrating Plain Language at NIH

Plain Language logo Health literacy incorporates a range of abilities: reading, comprehending, and analyzing information; decoding instructions, symbols, charts, and diagrams; weighing risks and benefits; and, ultimately, making decisions and taking action. The concept of health literacy also extends to the materials, environments, and challenges specifically associated with disease prevention and health promotion. The NIH Office of Communication and Public Liaison leads an agency-wide “Clear Communication” Initiative. Its aim is to cultivate a growing health literacy movement by increasing information sharing of NIH educational products, research, lessons learned, and research in the area of health literacy. Part of the “Clear Communication” program is the NIH Plain Language Initiative and annual Plain Language Award program, which recognizes excellence in NIH Plain Language communications. NIH employees may nominate any type of NIH communication product—letters, brochures, Web sites, press releases, scientific papers, and reports. NIH also wants to recognize internal documents, such as memos, forms, newsletters, and manuals.

The annual NIH Plain Language Award ceremony honors outstanding NIH communication products including revised websites, fact sheets, multi-media presentations, and other materials, including items designed for Spanish-speaking audiences.

Plain Language/Clear Communications Awards Program

Given the increased enthusiasm and proven success from across NIH for the agency’s Plain Language/ Clear Communications Awards program and annual lecture, the Office of the Director has transitioned the effort to individual Institutes and Centers (ICs) who may hold competitions as they wish. The NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL) has developed a set of resources for use by ICs in planning awards programs. OCPL efforts focus on working with our partner agencies on the development of training materials in support of Government-wide implementation of the Plain Writing Act, now Public Law 111-274. OCPL will continue to work with NIH agencies and Federal partners on activities related to implementation and training and encourages participating ICs to offer submissions to the annual NIH Director's Award program that recognizes excellence in Plain Language/Clear Communications category. OCPL believes this approach will expand attention to Plain Language and Clear Communications in fulfilling the NIH mission.

Tips for Using Plain Language:

Illustration showing a man and his doctor, the doctor is saying, 'Well, yes, I suppose I could explain the test results in 'plain English' -- but then you'd know how sick you are'

Certain qualities characterize plain language. These include common, everyday words, except for necessary technical terms. Other qualities include the use of personal pronouns; the active voice; logical organization; and easy-to-read and understand design features, such as bullets and tables.

1. Engage the reader.
  • First, consider who the reader is. Often, there is more than one reader.
  • Consider what the reader needs to know. Organize content to answer the reader's questions.
  • Write for the appropriate reading level.
2. Write Clearly. Use common, everyday words whenever possible.
  • Word Choices:
    • Use common, everyday words
    • Use other personal pronouns such as "you"
    • Use "must" instead of "shall"
    • Avoid using undefined technical terms
    • Use positive rather than negative words
    • Avoid using gender-specific terminology
    • Avoid long strings of nouns
  • Verb Forms:
    • Use active voice
    • Use action verbs
    • Use the present tense
  • Structure:
    • Use parallel construction
    • Be direct
    • Avoid using unnecessary exceptions

3. Display Material Correctly

Appearance is an important aspect of clear communication. If a document is pleasing to the eye, it will be more likely to attract your reader's attention. Appearance can also be an aid to the reader, improving comprehension and retention. There are four main aspects of appearance:

  • Organization. Strong, logical organization includes an introduction followed by short sentences and paragraphs. Organize messages to respond to reader interests and concerns.
  • Introduction. In lengthier documents, use an introduction and a table of contents to help the reader understand how a document is organized.
  • Short sentences and paragraphs. Sentence length should average 15-20 words. Sentences that are simple, active, affirmative, and declarative hold the reader's interest. Generally, each paragraph should contain only one topic. A series of paragraphs may be used to express complex or highly technical information. The more writing deviates from a clear and to-the-point structure, the harder it will be for the reader to understand what is being conveyed.
  • Layout. Layout includes margins, headings, and white space. Provide white space between sections to break up text and to make it easier for readers to understand. Use headings to guide the reader; the question-and-answer format is especially helpful. Try to anticipate the reader's questions and pose them as the reader would. Use adequate margins.
  • Tables. Tables make complex information readily understandable. Tables can help the reader see relationships more easily. They may require fewer words than straight text.
  • Typography: Typography relates to fonts and typographical elements used for emphasis, such as bullets or italics.

4. Evaluate Your Document

To ensure that you are communicating clearly, evaluate the document or have another person read it and offer suggestions for clarification. Look over the document for:

  • Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation;
  • Inclusion of appropriate devices, such as dating, page numbering, and consistency;
  • Visual appeal;
  • Consistency and effectiveness of layout and typographical devices (avoid overuse); and
  • Line breaks that inadvertently separate part of a name or date in a way that reduces clarity.

Where Can I Learn More?

Contact Information

For more information,
contact the NIH Plain Language staff at:

This page last reviewed on August 28, 2012

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