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Use plain English

As a government regulator we must use plain English so that the information we provide is accessible to everyone. It means writing clear, to the point communications using simple language.

If something adds little or no value, do not include it. Including unnecessary words, images or products can distract readers from more important content.

Plain English: Top 10 tips

1. Keep sentences short

Aim for sentences with fewer than 25 words. If you find yourself using lots of semi-colons or dashes, think how you could reword the sentence or break it into two. For lists or sentences where you want to make several points, use bullets.

2. Use the active voice

Use the active, rather than the passive voice eg ‘we will send you a letter’, rather than ‘a letter will be sent by us’. It makes the sentence easier to read and sounds less stuffy and old-fashioned.

3. Don’t repeat yourself

You won’t get your message across just because you’ve said it more than once. Repeated words or phrases can distract from what you are trying to say.

4. Write it as if you were talking to someone

If you’re struggling to write a letter or report, try saying it aloud as if you were explaining it to someone. This helps you form a coherent argument and prevents going into unnecessary detail.

5. Avoid using government buzzwords, jargon or legalese

Even if you’re writing to someone in the pensions industry or within government, try to find an alternative to jargon. We want to make pensions easier for everyone to understand, and we can play our part by communicating with our audiences in clear, simple language.

Find a list of words to avoid on GOV.UK.

6. Don't use formal or long words if there's a shorter alternative

Plain English doesn’t mean dumbed down. You can still use technical words where appropriate – but keep to everyday words if possible.

7. Present the key information before the details

Start by telling people what they need to do or know, then tell them why (if appropriate). Don’t lead in with paragraphs of historical context. Give the headlines, then any further information that will help them do/know what we want them to.

8. Make it easy for the reader

Do you want the reader to fill in a form? Make sure you enclose it or link to it. Do you want them to share it with their colleagues? Ask them in clear, directive language. ‘Complete this form’ works much better than ‘we would appreciate it if you could fill in a form, which you can find attached to this email’.

9. Re-read and edit

Ask yourself:

  • Is it clear what I want the reader to do?
  • Have I said the same thing twice? Can I cut out any repetition?
  • Have I asked someone else to look at it to see if they understand it? If in doubt, ask for a second pair of eyes if you think you might be too close to a document. 

10. Get to know the TPR style guide

TPR’s style guide has lots more tips on communicating clearly, including information on how we use numbering, contractions and acronyms, and information on our brand guidelines. Use this style guide to make sure users get a consistent experience of TPR content.

Find a list of plain English alternative words on the GOV.UK website.

Legal and technical content

Legal content can still be written in plain English. It’s important that users understand content and that we present complicated information simply. Where evidence shows there is a clear user need for including a legal term (eg ‘bona vacantia’), always explain it in plain English.

Where you need to use technical terms, you can. You just need to explain what they mean the first time you use them. See also ‘Writing well for specialists' on the GOV.UK website

The Association of British Insurers has produced a useful guide on making retirement choices clear which helps ensure that pensions language is communicated to members in a clear and consistent way.

Legal language

  • If you are talking about a legal requirement, use ‘must’. For example, ‘there are certain employer duties you must comply with’.
  • If you feel that ‘must’ does not have enough emphasis, then use ‘legal requirement’, ‘legally entitled’ etc. For example: ‘You are still legally required to complete a scheme return even if your scheme is in the process of winding up’.
  • 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 will not have criminal repercussions, then use: ‘need to’. For example: ‘Use our registration checklist to gather all the information you need to provide us with’.
  • 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.

Readability

When writing for our audiences, we need to assume they have a reading age of between 13 and 15 years.

Flesch reading ease score

Flesch reading ease measures how complex a text is. The lower the score, the more difficult the text is to read. The Flesch readability score uses the average length of your sentences (measured by the number of words) and the average number of syllables per word in an equation to calculate the reading ease. Text with a very high Flesch reading ease score (about 100) is straightforward and easy to read, with short sentences and no words of more than two syllables.

Usually a reading ease score of 60-70, which is easily understood by 13 to 15 year old students, is considered acceptable/normal for web copy.

Using Word®

Word® checks your document for Spelling and Grammar functionality and once this has been completed you will be shown the reading score: Find out how to test your document’s readability.

Using a free online tool

There are many free online tools available which will analyse your text for example: https://readabilityformulas.com/free-readability-calculators.php