The zombie guide to plain English

A zombie’s guide to plain English

If there’s anyone who needs to be clear in their communications, it’s the government. And that doesn’t just mean in the media and on websites, it means in the office too.

Stop confusing your audience and co-workers by using jargon, writing in the passive voice and not explaining acronyms before using them.

Jargon doesn’t make you sound clever. Writing or saying ‘leverage’ instead of ‘use’ doesn’t make you more impressive; it can make you unclear, confusing and in some cases annoying.

We have spoken about the need to communicate using plain English before.

“People want and need to be able to understand and act on information quickly rather than wade through unnecessary words, unfamiliar jargon and sentences more tricky than a game of Jenga. It is not because they lack the intelligence. They lack the time,” says writer, editor, proof-reader and English language consultant at KHO Language Services Kay Hutchings-Olsson.

In an increasingly time-poor world, no one wants to have to google a ‘buzzword’ or an acronym when they’re reading a webpage or email.

Dr Neil James of the Plain English Foundation found that the use of plain English in communications increases productivity and lowers costs. In fact, he mentions that by changing 200 pieces of their online content into plain English, Sweden’s Higher Education Agency call centre’s operating costs fell by 20% within two years.

For such a simple concept, why do so many government communicators still struggle to communicate in plain English?

Fast Company’s Ted Leonhardt believes that “we tend to fall back on corporate buzzwords when we feel a need to demonstrate we’re in control.”

Maybe the problem lies in the lack of direction and clarity in regards to government publication guidelines.

Unlike the UK and US governments, the Australian government has no single official style guide – only the long outdated, 550 page style manual.

In the absence of an up to date, easily accessible official style guide, government communicators in Australia are falling into bad habits.

Last year, the US government released their content guide called 18F.

“Government websites often talk at readers rather than to them: As with other facets of its online presence, .gov writing tends to describe the government’s concerns in ‘governmentese,’ leaving users frustrated by information that is neither actionable nor understandable,” 18F begins by stating.

18F’s strength is in its accessibility and tone. Rather than dictate, it offers advice and encourages users to refer to it as a guide, not a bible.

18F advises that “acronyms often confuse readers. Avoid them whenever possible.” Australian government departments long-winded names are often shortened to acronyms. Take DFAT (the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), PM&C (the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) and DHS (the Department of Human Services), for example.

To the seasoned public sector employee, these might not require any explanation. To the average Australian, however, they do.

The South Australian government’s plain English good practice guide notes that “for some reason public sector writers seem particularly prone to using the passive voice. Perhaps this is because they often write for someone else’s signature and feel they might over-commit the signing officer by being too definite or too direct.”

The issue with writing in the passive voice is that is makes content less engaging and more difficult to understand. If you’re not being careful, it can be easy to slip into passive writing habits.

In 2012, United States Marine Corps ethics professor Rebecca Johnson created a simple test for writers to determine whether or not you are using passive voice – the “by zombies” test.

Take this sentence, for example:

Passive: A report by staff was submitted (by zombies)

Active: Staff submitted (by zombies) a report

To get the most out of our communications we need to write and speak clearly, using plain English, simple words and an active voice.

  1. Remember, if you add ‘by zombies’ after the verb and the sentence still makes sense, you are using passive voice.
  2. Always use simple words instead of complicated ones.
  3. Never use acronyms unless you have already explained their full meaning.

Now that we have established that, share this blog post with your friends and colleagues.


Each week a staff member puts pen to paper to write about an aspect of content communication that speaks to them, and hopefully, informs you. This is a space where our passion for writing, learning and sharing information comes to shine.

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