A simple vocabulary

It can be tempting to use a learned vocabulary to prove your worth or give your content some gravitas. Sadly, it doesn't work. In his Ig Nobel-winning research 'Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity, or Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly' (pdf, 186KB), Daniel Oppenheimer found that:

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, increasing the complexity of a text does not cause an essay's author to seem more intelligent. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.

Readers appreciate writers who communicate their ideas – no matter how complex – clearly and concisely. Plain English sometimes gets a bad rap – it's seen as dull, dumbed-down and humourless. In fact, with its vital verbs, lively sentences, and words that actually mean something, plain language can inform far more precisely than legalese or academic twaddle. Used well, plain language is the difference between being understood and being ignored.

Using a plain vocabulary simply means using everyday words rather than fusty alternatives. It makes content easier to read and understand.

  • 'buy' instead of 'acquire' (or even worse, 'make an acquisition')
  • 'start' instead of 'commencement'
  • 'I understand' instead of 'I am cognisant of'
  • 'with' instead of 'accompanied by'.

The Plain English Campaign's A-Z of Alternative Words (pdf, 177KB) lists simple alternatives to needlessly complex words.

Clear language reflects clear thought. Sometimes, cleaning up your vocabulary reveals logical problems.

Requests for additions to this calendar should initially be made to the organisational unit sending out the request for information.

We're not entirely sure, but that appears to mean:

If you want to add something to the calendar, first ask the unit that wants to add something to the calendar.                                    

If you need to defend plain language, arm yourself with the basic principles and the arguments in its favour

Clichés and hyperbole

Avoid clichés and hyperbole. Where possible, steer clear of tired favourites such as 'unique', 'groundbreaking' and 'far-reaching'. Forget 'real world solutions', unless you have access to an alternate world with which to compare them.

Try to avoid difficult-to-substantiate claims such as 'first', 'oldest' or 'youngest'. Their overuse or misuse reduces our credibility.

The Australian Centre for Blood Diseases aims to provide excellence in the diagnosis and treatment of blood conditions as well as play a leading role in the advancement of knowledge in this increasingly important area of Medicine.

Terms like 'provide excellence' and 'play a leading role' are vastly overused and self-evident – would anyone want to 'provide mediocrity' or 'lag behind'? And capitalising the word 'medicine' just looks odd. Rather, write something like:

At the Australian Centre for Blood Diseases, we diagnose, treat and research blood conditions. We offer the most extensive network of haematology services in Victoria.

Emphasis and formatting

Don't try to emphasise a word or idea by using underlining, italics, bold print, capital letters or exclamation marks. Instead, write and structure skillfully. For example, place the word or term you want to emphasise at the start or end of your sentence.