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Plain English in practice: writing instructions

In a previous piece, I looked at some guidelines for writing plain Engl­­­ish: that is, the kind of English that will get your intended meaning across most clearly. Here, I take you through an example.

Warning: Instructions may contain lethal sesquipedalian lexemes

There are times when clear writing can make the difference between life and death, such as when you’re writing safety instructions. As a language geek, one of my favourite pastimes is reading instructions and notices and thinking of ways to translate them into plainer, clearer English. I find that mentally revising instructions designed to create a safe environment helps to exercise my plain-English muscles: it prepares me for writing everyday emails to colleagues as if the recipients’ lives depended on understanding them. Below, I’ve had a go at rewriting some safety instructions to make them easier to understand.

This is a warning from a cleaning product on my shelf. It starts off well:

Warning: Keep out of reach of children. Keep away from eyes. If product gets into eyes rinse thoroughly with water. Rinse and dry hands after use.

Then it starts getting more flowery:

People with sensitive or damaged skin should avoid prolonged contact with the product.

This sentence contains a less familiar word: ‘prolonged’. However, this is not (yet) an emergency instruction, so it’s probably OK. If you have sensitive skin, you could look up what prolonged means before you start using the product. Also, ‘prolonged’ has the word ‘long’ hidden in it, which would probably help you to work out the meaning without using a dictionary.

Consult a dictionary before contacting a medical professional

The instructions continue:

Do not ingest. If product is ingested then seek medical advice.

I’m not keen on the use of ‘seek’ here – it’s a rather quaint way of saying ‘get’. But my main problem with this sentence is its use of ‘ingest’, combined with the passive voice (‘is ingested’). ‘Ingest’ isn’t a word in everyday use. Its definition in our current English dictionary is ‘take (food, drink, or another substance) into the body by swallowing or absorbing it’. The product we’re talking about here is a liquid cleaner, and common sense suggests that the label means to warn against the danger of a child drinking some of it. My improvement would be:

Do not drink this cleaning fluid. If a child or adult has swallowed any of it, you should call a doctor immediately.

In an emergency, a panicked parent probably wouldn’t need to look up any of these words in the dictionary before they would be able to act on the instructions.

Your turn

Now that I’ve given you a quick introduction to writing clearer instructions, it’s your turn. Clear or misleading, funny or serious; use the comments box at the bottom of this post to send us your favourite examples of written instructions. We’ll feature our favourites in a future post.

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