More helpful hints for writing in Simple English

By Tom Castor | May 1, 2018 |

While I have written before on the artsy science of writing in Simple English, I did not give a specific set of guidelines that a writer would find helpful. Here is my attempt to correct that oversight.

Thirteen Helpful Hints (read GUIDELINES) for Writing with Simplicity and Clarity

  1. Write sentences that are brief and concise.

No sentence more than 20 words. No paragraph more than 10 sentences.

  1. Always use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Seems obvious, but translating bad writing is harder than translating good writing.

  1. Use a standard English word order when possible.

Most English sentences (clauses) conform to the SVO word order. That means that the Subject comes before the Verb, which comes before the Object.

  1. Break up long noun strings.

Stacking nouns in a long string can create confusion for the reader. A “healthy eating education programme” is a programme to teach people how to eat in a healthier way.

  1. Avoid humor.

Things that may seem funny in one language is seldom funny in another. That is especially true with “word-play” humor. “Did you hear about the guy who broke both his left arm and left leg?  He’s all right now.”

  1. Make sure that dates, times, and measurements are consistent.

Is 3/4/18 March 4 or April 3? That depends on where you live. The same is true with times and currencies. Use formats that are compatible with the end reader’s style and be consistent throughout the document.

  1. Stay in the active voice.

Although a passive can be necessary at times, the construction is more difficult for a new English reader to understand. Make sure that the subject of the sentence is the agent of the action whenever possible.

  1. Use relative pronouns.

“The house that Jack built is large.” “The teacher, whom I respect most, is retiring.” You may omit the words “that” and “whom” – but using them provides a better way-marker for ESL readers.

  1. Replace phrasal verbs and nouns.

The thugs beat up the weaker kids. They drove a beat-up truck. Most often, these are idiomatic. Idioms (as we will see later) can be problematic for those who are new to English.

  1. Delete idioms.

To a new English reader, an idiom is a pig in a poke. They know it means something but taking the words at face value will never take them to the meaning. [All languages seem to have these phrases. In Thai, ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ – translates as “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.” It actually means, “It’s never gonna happen.” Like English, “When pigs fly.” Or Russian, Когда рак на горе свистнет (“When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain .”) And in Dutch, it’s Als de koeien op het ijs dansen. (“When the cows are dancing on the ice).]

  1. Use one term for a single concept.

Synonyms can make writing more interesting, but they can also be confusing. A different way of saying the same thing is sometimes not understood to be so unless it is explicitly stated to be so.  If you mean “literal,” try to avoid accurate, authentic, bona fide, genuine, verbatim, and word-for-word. If you use “click” to describe activating a website link, do not change to “press” or “hit” later in the text.

  1. Clean your vocabulary.

Are your antecedents clear? Have you clarified (or avoided) acronyms, homonyms, and abbreviations? Are you using standard words in non-standard ways? Have a scrubbed unnecessarily complicated terminology? Words with fewer syllables are easier to understand

  1. Develop a glossary.

Keep a list of terms that have special meanings as you write. When writing about theological subjects, mark words that may not be familiar to the reader (sanctification, orthodoxy) and define them either using “running definitions” or in a glossary that is attached and easy to find.

Here are some writing resources that you may find beneficial.

The book:

The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market (Paperback) – March 7, 2008, by John R. Kohl.

Sites that use Simple English:

Here are three Bible translations (or paraphrases), all available at, that give a sense of how Simple English can sound/read.

NIrV (New International Readers Version)

ERV (Easy-to-Read Version)

NLV (New Life Version)

Helpful websites for crafting a readable document: (the Difficult and Extraneous Word Finder is very helpful.)

This site helps turn off the internal editor while writing:

Then a few odd sites (literally) that will help you write – “simply”: (a tool that analyses your writing in many interesting ways)

Articles on Controlled Language or Plain English: (various articles)

For more tools on Simple English writing (or further explanations of the tools above) look [HERE].

Tom Castor

Thomas Castor, founder of Clear and Simple Media Group, is a seasoned writer and communicator who has been delivering content with clarity and simplicity for 30 years.