Plain Language at AHRQ

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to write clear Government communication that the public can understand and use. This page explains what plain language is and how the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is implementing the Act.

What is Plain Language?

  • Plain language uses grammatically correct, complete sentences and uses the right words to convey information.
  • It tells a reader exactly what he or she needs to know without using extra words.
  • It uses common, everyday words, except when technical terms are necessary.
  • It uses:
    • personal pronouns; 
    • the active voice; 
    • logical organization; and 
    • design features, such as bullets and tables.

For tips on creating plain language documents, see the section on "How can I tell if a document is in plain language?"

What is the Plain Writing Act?

President Barack Obama signed the The Plain Writing Act of 2010 on October 13, 2010. The Act requires federal agencies to write "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." The President also emphasized the importance of establishing "a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration" in his January 21, 2009, Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.

How does the Act affect AHRQ?

Part of AHRQ's mission is to provide Americans with health information that people can easily understand. The Plain Writing Act requires AHRQ to use plain language when the agency develops materials for the public. AHRQ is committed to using plain language and complying with Federal Plain Language Guidelines in all new documents written for the public, other government entities, and its workers.

We have trained our employees on plain language principles and have assigned a staff member to ensure we comply with the Plain Writing Act:

How can you help?

Let us know (http://info.ahrq.gov/app/ask) if you have trouble understanding our documents or the pages on our Web site.

How can I tell if a document is in plain language?

Writers who use plain language:

Engage the reader.

  • Consider who the reader is.
  • Consider what the reader needs to know.
    • Organize content to answer the reader's questions.
  • Write for the appropriate reading level.

Write clearly.

  • Choose the correct word:
    • Use common words.
    • Use personal pronouns, such as "you."
    • Use "must" not "shall."
    • Avoid using undefined technical terms.
    • Use positive rather than negative words.
    • Avoid using gender-specific terminology.
    • Avoid long strings of nouns.
  • Choose the correct verb forms:
    • Use active voice.
    • Use action verbs.
    • Use the present tense.
  • Choose the correct structure:
    • Use parallel construction.
    • Be direct.

Display Material Correctly.

Attractive documents are more likely to keep your reader's attention. Appearance can also improve a reader's understanding and retention of the information. There are four main aspects of appearance:

  • Organization. 
    • Strong, logical organization includes an introduction followed by short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Introduction. 
    • In long documents, use an introduction and a table of contents to show how a document is organized.
  • Short sentences and paragraphs. 
    • Sentence length should average 15 to 20 words.
    • Each paragraph should contain only one topic.
    • A series of paragraphs may be used to express complex or technical information.
  • 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. 
    • A question-and-answer format can be helpful.
  • Tables. 
    • Tables make complex information more 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.

Evaluate documents.

Review, or have someone else review, the document for:

  • Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Dates, page numbering, and consistency.
  • Visual appeal.
  • Consistency and effectiveness of layout and typography.
  • Line breaks that inadvertently separate part of a name or date in a way that reduces clarity.

Where Can I Learn More?

Current as of March 2012
Internet Citation: Plain Language at AHRQ. March 2012. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/policy/electronic/plain-writing/index.html