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Brand guidelines

Writing in plain English

How and why we use plain English to communicate clearly.

What is plain English?

Using plain English means writing clear and concise information to communicate a message effectively. The aim is not to reduce the amount of information we are giving the user, it is to present it in a way that is easy to understand and navigate.

Some of the key principles of plain English are:

  • Using everyday English.
  • Avoiding jargon and using words that are widely understood.
  • Using short, simple sentences.
  • Using lists wherever possible to break up information.
  • Using active verbs instead of passive verbs.

Why we use plain English

Writing in plain English is not dumbing down, it is opening up.

It makes it easier for all users to take in information quickly and easily, so that our messages can be easily understood. Even highly intelligent and literate people understand text much more effectively when it is kept concise, simple and jargon free.


We also have a duty to make sure that our writing is accessible to all of our readers. As a University we take an open and inclusive approach to education, and our writing needs to reflect this. We need to take into account that some of our users could:

  • Not have English as their first language
  • Have learning difficulties, or physical or mental conditions which make reading more difficult
  • Be using a screen reader, or other accessibility software
  • Be feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed

Online reading behaviour

In some writing contexts, such as academic papers or formal documents, readers may be expecting to engage with long, complex sentences and specialist vocabulary.

Writing for an online audience is different. Users will want to find the information they need quickly. They may also be distracted by other things around them when consuming digital content.

  • Around 50% of York St John University's website traffic comes from mobile devices
  • 79% of users scan webpages, only 16% read it word for word (Dejan Marketing, 2015)
  • Visitors only read 20% of the text on an average page (Neilsen, 2018)

These brand guidelines can apply to both online and offline content. However, the majority of our content is now digital, and this makes it even more important to write in plain English.

Tips for using plain English

These are some of the ways we can make sure our content is as useful and accessible as possible.

Avoid jargon, idioms and expressions

Language can exclude readers. Using jargon, idioms and expressions can make your content inaccessible to some users. If you have to use a specialist or technical term, explain its meaning to the reader.

If people cannot find the information they are looking for then they will seek it elsewhere. If we are the only source of this information and our users cannot understand it, then we have let our users down.


Do not say:

  • It is a Palladian style stone building.

Do say:

  • It is a Palladian style stone building. Palladian style architectural features include columns, symmetry and decorative arches.

Simplify your sentences

Writing short sentences is one of the key features of effective web writing. People scan for information when reading on the web. Even highly literate people miss the meaning of longer sentences because they are scanning.

Research shows that the longer a sentence is, the less it is understood. When a sentence is 14 words long, readers comprehend 90% of the information. When a sentence is 43 words long, readers comprehend just 10% of the information. The ideal average sentence length for web writing is 15 to 20 words.

Avoid writing sentences with lots of commas, or other punctuation such as dashes or semi colons. Instead, split your sentence down into several smaller ones which will be easier to understand.

Structure your text so it scans easily

Long blocks of text are much harder to scan than text which is broken up into small sections. Keep paragraphs short, and make use of bullet lists to present information.

Address the reader directly

In our writing we address the reader as 'you' wherever possible. This gives the text a friendlier tone and makes the reader feel more involved. It helps applicants to imagine their future selves as the subject of the sentence.

Use active rather than passive verbs

Active verbs are more easily understood, and usually make the writing seem more lively.

There may be times when passive verbs cannot be avoided without changing the meaning of a sentence, but we should try to use active verbs wherever possible.


Do not say:

  • On this module you will be introduced to important philosophical concepts and debates.

Do say:

  • On this module we will introduce you to important philosophical concepts and debates.

Avoid adverbs

Adverbs such as 'completely', 'really' and 'very' often make writing seem timid or unsure. We want to sound confident in any statement we are making.


Do not say:

  • Our Wellbeing team will completely support you during your time with us.

Do say: 

  • Our Wellbeing team will support you during your time with us.

You can find out more about how to apply plain English techniques from the plain English campaign.