What does Plain Language have to do with stress and anxiety?

There are many benefits to the quickly-growing-in-popularity Plain Language movement, which promotes clear written and verbal communication. It conveys the message in the shortest possible time and increases the number of people who can understand it. It also reduces chances of being misunderstood and, most importantly, decreases the stress and anxiety for the readers.

13 October is International Plain Language Day, an anniversary of President Obama signing the Plain Writing Act that requires US federal agencies to use clear government communication. This occasion made me reflect on the power of language to transform the world and grant or remove power from people on both ends of verbal and written interactions. More to the point, International Plain Language Day made me think about the stress and anxiety that language can cause or spare its user, depending on how understandable it is.

How to use Plain Language?

In sum, the official Plain Language guidelines advocate clear communication with the following advice:

  • Use language your audience understands and feels comfortable with.
  • Organise the information and make it easy to follow by using headlines, topic sentences, transition words and lists.
  • Avoid noun strings and jargon, minimise abbreviations and definitions and use the terminology consistently.
  • Be concise: use short words, sentences and paragraphs.
  • Use verbs in the present tense and active voice.
  • Include visuals such as tables to make complex material easier to understand.
  • Test your assumptions about your current audience: use paragraph and usability

For writers, the potential of their manuscript to become clear to an increased spectrum of readers should be the main incentive for using Plain Language. But it might not always come naturally to technical or academic authors who specialise in their domains. Working with a copyeditor who understands your area of expertise might help to breach the gap and open the text to a broader readership.

What are the benefits of Plain Language?

There are many benefits to using Plain Language. Among others, it can help to:

  • Get the message across in the shortest possible time.
  • Increase the number of people who can understand the message.
  • Reduce chances of being misunderstood.
  • Decrease the stress and anxiety for the audience.

Plain Language and cognitive load theory

I find the power of Plain Language to minimise anxiety particularly important. ‘Plain Language to Minimise Cognitive Load: A Social Justice Perspective,’ a paper written in 2017 by Canadian editor Iva Cheung, discusses this problem. Cheung used cognitive load theory to provide an ethical motivation for using Plain Language in technical and professional communication.

Cognitive load theory builds on the premise that short-term memory has a limited capacity, and overloading it reduces the effectiveness of teaching, or in this context — understanding. In the same way, having too many windows open on your computer reduces its capability to work properly. Cheung’s key takeaways are as follows:

  1. To learn, we must process information with our working memory. But if the cognitive load of the learning task is too high, learning is impaired.
  2. Plain Language decreases the cognitive load of communications, so using it is an overtly political act to redress comprehension-related imbalances resulting from social inequities.

Plain Language, anxiety and stress

One of the Plain Language guidelines prescribes avoiding jargon. And rightly so, because there are many circumstances where professional jargon can cause cognitive overload in communication with those unfamiliar with the specialised knowledge and language. Thinking of everyday examples, this could apply to situations when reaching out for medical, legal or fiscal advice.

Looking at a healthcare setting, medical professionals use jargon that they learnt, having received years of specialised training. But in interactions with patients who may not be familiar with the terminology, they do not use the language relevant to the patient’s knowledge and understanding. The jargon can help professionals of the same discipline communicate effectively, but in a patient–clinician dynamic, it may create power imbalances. Patients may not understand partially or even wholly the diagnosis or medical recommendations and, therefore, may be unable to give informed consent. In other words, the power imbalance between patients and healthcare providers created by language can leave the patients uninformed or misinformed.

Most of us interact with healthcare professionals when we are unwell, in pain and vulnerable; this alone may lead to stress and anxiety. The uncertainty of the diagnosis and treatment can only add more stress.


I want to conclude this post by highlighting that language is a powerful tool for communicating and conveying ideas. It also enables us to disempower imbalances that create divisions, leaving some of us at odds. In healthcare, Plain Language could make health information easier to understand and help flatten the power hierarchy, reducing miscommunication, mistrust and stress. It could shift the power dynamic and welcome the patients to become active and informed participants in making decisions concerning their health.

So in celebration of International Plain Language Day, let it be clear to all of us. If you would like to make your text understandable to more readers using Plain Language, contact me and request a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount!). If you want to hear more from me, including self-editing and writing tips, follow me on MastodonTwitter and LinkedIn or join my newsletter.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a student member of the Society of Indexers.

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