Avoid Words/Constructions that Cause Confusion/Plain Language Action & Info Network
Plain Language


Avoid Words and Constructions That Cause Confusion

[checkmark] Your document will be clearer if you avoid confusing phrasing.

Define each abbreviation or acronym the first time you use it.

In general, use abbreviations only to refer to terms that are central to the document. For example, if a regulation is about the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, you can refer to it as CERCLA. But do not abbreviate terms that you use only one or a few times. Write them out each time.

Use the same term consistently to identify a specific thought or object.

For example, if you use the term "senior citizens" to refer to a group, continue to use this term throughout your document. Do not substitute another term, such as "the elderly," that will cause the reader to wonder if you are referring to the same group.

Define words in a way that does not conflict with ordinary or accepted usage.

If possible, use a word in a way that is consistent with its everyday meaning rather than creating a new meaning for your document. A change in meaning may confuse the reader, and you create ambiguity if you use the word elsewhere in your document in its ordinary sense. For example, don't redefine "automobile" to refer to vehicles such as motorcycles or large trucks.
Avoid "noun sandwiches."

Too much government writing uses too many noun clusters--groups of nouns "sandwiched" together. Avoid these confusing constructions by using more prepositions and articles to clarify the relationships among the words.

Underground mine worker safety protection procedures development Developing procedures to protect the safety of workers in underground mines

Use pronouns that clearly refer to a specific noun.

If a pronoun could refer to more than one person or object in a sentence, repeat the name of the person or object or rewrite the sentence.

After the Administrator appoints an Assistant Administrator, he or she must . . . After the Administrator appoints an Assistant Administrator, the Assistant Administrator must . . .

Avoid confusing legal and technical jargon.

Readers can do without archaic jargon such as "hereafter," "heretofore," and "therewith." See Appendix A, "Words and Expressions to Avoid," and Appendix B for plain substitutions for commonly used jargon and unclear phrases from the 1990 Federal Register publication, "Drafting Legal Documents."

You may sometimes need to use a technical term to communicate accurately and convey a precise meaning. But, be careful not to be cowed into overusing technical terms. The argument that technical terms are "necessary" is greatly overused. Try to substitute everyday language for jargon as often as possible.

Use technical terms only when truly necessary and only when your document will be read only by technical readers. If your document is intended for both technical and non-technical readers, write for the non-technical reader.

Avoid stilted, wordy language.

Wordy, dense construction is one of the biggest problems in government writing. Nothing is more confusing to the reader than long, complex sentences containing multiple phrases and clauses.

If the State agency finds that an individual has received a payment to which the individual was not entitled, whether or not the payment was due to the individual's fault or misrepresentation, the individual shall be liable to repay to the State the total sum of the payment to which the individual was not entitled. If the State agency finds that you received a payment that you weren't entitled to, you must pay the entire sum back.