Writing well for specialists
Government experts often say that because they’re writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they don’t need to use plain English. This is wrong.
Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.
For example, research into use of specialist legal language in legal documents found:
- 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English – and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference (eg, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the Latin ‘inter alia’)
- the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English
People understand complex specialist language, but don’t want to read it if there’s an alternative. This is because people with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read. They don’t have time to pore through reams of dry, complicated prose.
Where you need to use technical terms, you can. They’re not jargon. You just need to explain what they mean the first time you use them.
Legal content can still be written in plain English. It’s important that users understand content and that we present complicated information simply.
If you have to publish legal jargon, it will be a publication so you’ll be writing a plain English summary.
Where evidence shows there’s a clear user need for including a legal term, eg ‘bona vacantia’, always explain it in plain English.
If you’re talking about a legal requirement, use ‘must’. For example, ‘your employer must pay you the National Minimum Wage (NMW)’.
If you feel that ‘must’ doesn’t have enough emphasis, then use ‘legal requirement’, ‘legally entitled’ etc. For example: ‘Once your child is registered at school, you’re legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly’.
When deciding whether to use ‘must’ or ‘legally entitled’ etc, consider how important it is for us to talk about the legal aspect, as well as the overall tone of voice.
If a requirement is legal, but administrative, or part of a process that won’t have criminal repercussions, then use: ‘need to’. For example: ‘You will need to provide copies of your marriage certificate’.
This may be a legal requirement, but not completing it would just stop the person from moving on to the next stage of a process, rather than committing a more serious offence.
Footnotes and legal language
Don’t use footnotes on documents. They’re designed for reference in print, not web pages. Always consider the user need first. If the information in the footnotes is important, include it in the body text. If it’s not, leave it out.