26th October 2019
What Are Layman’s Terms? A Guide to Plain English
When people refer to expressing something in layman’s terms, they mean plain or simple language. But what exactly is a layman? And how can you simplify your writing to make it easier to read? In this post, we offer a few tips on how to express yourself in plain English.
What Is a Layman? And What Are Layman’s Terms?
The words “layman,” “laywoman,” and “layperson” were originally related to religion, referring to someone who belongs to a religious organization but who has no special training. For example:
Both clergy and laypeople have an important role in the Catholic Church.
More generally, though, these terms can now apply to any non-specialist in a particular field. So we could also say:
As a layman, Tim struggled to follow the dense legal language.
The phrase “layman’s terms,” then, refers to using language that could be understood by a layperson (i.e., plain English, free from jargon).
5 Tips to Help You Write in Plain English
But how do you write in layperson’s terms? We have a few guidelines.
1. Avoid Jargon and Explain Technical Terms
Jargon – language used by experts or insiders in a specific field of study or industry – is the enemy of plain English. As such, you should try to avoid jargon when writing for a lay audience, including:
- Technical language (e.g., saying “cardialgia” instead of “heartburn”).
- Slang terms specific to a profession (e.g., the medical slang “gomer”).
- Undefined acronyms that only specialists would recognize.
All the above rely on insider knowledge, so anyone not already in the know may find your writing difficult to follow if it’s full of jargon.
Instead, try to use everyday language wherever possible. And if you do need to use a technical term, make sure to define it clearly when you introduce it.
2. Use Short Sentences and Paragraphs
Short sentences are easier to follow than long ones. So, while varying sentence length is good, using short simple sentences where possible will help to improve readability. Tips for keeping your sentences short include:
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- Using the active voice to keep your writing clear and direct.
- Eliminating unnecessary modifiers, repetition and wordiness.
- Breaking longer sentences down into two or more short sentences.
The same applies to paragraph length. Ideally, each paragraph should be around 100 to 200 words and focus on one key point. And while some variation is fine, keeping paragraphs concise will help you avoid intimidating blocks of uninterrupted text, making your work easier to read.
3. Get to the Main Point Quickly
People are busy. They skim read. So unless you can grab their attention as soon as possible, they may get bored and stop reading.
As such, in the first paragraph of your writing, state your main point as clearly and concisely as possible. In this blog post, for example, we could have begun by discussing religious laity. But since that isn’t our main interest, we make it clear that the post is about plain English from the start.
4. Don’t Dumb Down Unnecessarily!
Simplifying your language doesn’t mean dumbing down your ideas. And if your reader feels like you’re talking down to them, they may lose interest.
The key is to find a level that suits your audience. If you’re explaining a scientific theory to children, then you may have to simplify some ideas. But if you’re addressing college-level students, you can assume they are clever people even if they don’t know the technical language involved.
So, when writing something for a lay audience, ask yourself:
- Does my target audience already know anything about my chosen topic?
- What will readers need to know to understand my point?
- How accustomed are my audience to grasping complicated ideas?
You can then tailor the complexity of your writing to suit your target readers.
5. Get Your Documents Proofread
Asking a non-specialist friend or colleague to read a draft of your writing is a great idea. They can give you a different perspective, including pointing out areas that may be hard to understand for a lay audience.
And for an expert opinion, you can even have your work proofread by a professional. Our editors, for instance, can provide feedback on writing in plain English as well as making sure your work is error free.
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