More about Plain English

I just finished reading a fascinating history of Facebook (David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect – highly recommended). According to Kirkpatrick, Facebook has a number of carefully designed features that have contributed to its colossal success. One is founder Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence that nothing should be allowed to interrupt users’ experiences with Facebook. For this reason, popup ads have always been banned from the site.

There’s a lesson here for writers. Anything that interrupts the flow of ideas should be banned from your writing. Look for ideas that wander away from your main point and – the subject of today’s blog – extraneous words slow down and interrupt your readers’ experience. To put it another way: Writing plain English should be your goal.

Here’s a list of words and phrases to watch for. Each one is followed by a recommended substitute:

single click (click)

pulldown menu  (menu)

large in size  (large)

utilize  (use)

if or when  (if)

preregister  (register)

preplan  (plan)

prearrange  (arrange)

for the purpose of  (for)

if the event that  (if)

a rainfall event  (rain)

blue in color  (blue)

And here are two words you can often delete: individual and different. Take a look at these examples:

Individual members will receive two tickets to the conference. (What’s the difference between a member and an individual member? Nothing!)

Members will receive two tickets to the conference. CORRECT

Three different people asked me for directions. (What’s the difference between three different people and three people? Nothing!)

Three people asked me for directions. CORRECT


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