Aboriginal language and plain English guide

This page has tips and examples on using plain English.

Use active voice, avoid passives

Change a passive statement to an active statement by supplying an actor (the doer). 

If the actor is unclear use ‘they’ or ‘somebody’.

Instead of 'He was arrested' try 'The police arrested him'.

Instead of 'If you tease the dog you will be bitten' try 'If you tease the dog he will bite you'.

Instead of 'You will be paid extra for overtime work,' try 'If you work overtime they will pay you more money'.

Instead of 'He broke the law so he was jailed,' try 'He broke the law so they put him in jail'.

Instead of 'His money was stolen,' try 'Somebody stole his money'.

Avoid abstract nouns

Replace abstract nouns with verbs (doing words) or adjectives (describing words). An abstract noun is something that is intangible, like an idea or feeling, and cannot be detected with the senses.

Instead of 'It has no strength,' try 'It is not strong' (adjective used).

Instead of 'That was due to his good management,' try 'He managed things properly, so that happened' (verb used).

Instead of 'His patience has run out,' try 'He will not be patient any more' (adjective used).

Instead of 'His anger led him to violence,' try 'He was angry. That made him violent' (adjective used).

Instead of 'He enjoys going for a run,' try 'He likes running' (verb used).

Avoid negative questions

Instead of 'Isn’t he the boss?' try 'Is he the boss?'

Instead of 'You never did that before, did you?' try 'Have you ever done this before?'

Instead of 'So you didn’t report the trouble?' try 'Have you reported the trouble?'

Define unfamiliar words

Use the word, then attach a short descriptive statement.

Instead of 'This is Crown land,' try 'This is Crown land, which is land the Government owns'.

Instead of 'You have been given bail,' try 'The police gave you bail, which means you promise to come back to court next time and not get into any trouble while you’re waiting for court'.

Put ideas in chronological order

Instead of 'Prior to leaving the hotel, you had a drink?' try 'You had a drink at the hotel. Sometime after that you left the hotel. Is that true?'

Instead of 'You’re scheduled to move into the house next week, but you haven’t signed the tenancy agreement,' try 'First you have to sign the tenancy agreement. Then you can move into the house next week'.

Instead of 'Today we need to decide whether you’re going to have surgery, based on your test results from last week,'' try 'You came in last week and we checked your results. Today I want to tell you about the results, and then we can decide what to do next'.

Avoid multiple clauses in a sentence (one idea, one sentence) 

Break into several sentences.

Instead of 'Early resolution of disputes, especially through mediation, which contributes to building safer community environments, is encouraged,' try 'The government wants to make communities safer. That can happen if people solve arguments quickly. Mediation (talking about problems) is one way to solve arguments'.

Avoid if, but and hypothetical events

Be careful when using words like ‘if’ and ‘or’ to talk about hypothetical events which have not happened yet. 

Use maybe to indicate multiple possibilities.

Instead of 'We’ll build new houses if the funding is approved,' try 'Maybe they will give us money and we can build new houses. Maybe they won’t give us money, then we can’t build any new houses'.

Instead of 'If the corrections officer approves, can go to the football game,' try 'You must ask the corrections officer about going to the football game. Maybe she will say that you can go. Maybe she will say you cannot go. You must do what she says'.

Place cause before effect

Be wary of the word ‘because’.

Instead of 'You’re going to be imprisoned for three weeks because you didn’t comply with your orders,' try 'The judge gave you rules to follow. You didn’t follow those rules. That is why the judge is putting you in jail for three weeks'.

Instead of 'You were angry due to him insulting your sister?' try 'He insulted your sister and this made you angry. Is this true?'

Indicate when you change topic

'I’ve finished asking about your job. Now I need to ask you about your family.'

'Thanks for telling me about what happened last week. Now I want to talk to you about what we should do tomorrow.'

Avoid relying heavily on prepositions to talk about time

Prepositions are words like ‘to', 'from', 'on', 'at' and 'under’.

Instead of 'The program will operate from Wednesday to next Tuesday,' try 'The program will start on Wednesday and then finish next Tuesday'.

Instead of 'Your contract is under review,' try 'They are reviewing your contract'.

Instead of 'They will make a decision over the next three months,' try 'They will think about this for three months, and then they will decide what they will do'.

Avoid figurative language

Instead of 'Fight for your family,' try 'Work hard to keep your family together'.

Instead of 'When I said that, he just exploded,' try 'When I said that, he suddenly got angry and shouted at me'.

Instead of 'I want to make sure that we’re on the same page,' try 'I want to make sure we understand each other'.

Instead of 'Keep your eye on him,' try 'Keep watching him closely'.

Last updated: 19 February 2016

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