Address the user
Even though your document may affect a thousand or a million people, you are speaking to the one person who is reading it. When your writing reflects this, it’s more economical and has a greater impact.
Use pronouns to speak directly to your reader
Pronouns help the audience picture themselves in the text and relate to what you’re saying. More than any other single technique, using “you” pulls users into the information and makes it relevant to them.
When you use “you” to address users, they are more likely to understand what their responsibility is.
|Copies of tax returns must be provided.||You must provide copies of your tax returns.|
Writing for an individual forces you to analyze carefully what you want the reader to do. This way, you’ll find it easier to:
- Put information in a logical order
- Answer questions and provide the information that your reader wants to know
- Assign responsibilities and requirements clearly
Define your pronouns clearly
Define “you” by any of the following methods:
- State in the beginning of the document who the audience is. For example: “This regulation tells you, the loan applicant, how to secure a loan.”
- Define “you” in the definitions section. For example: “‘You’ means a loan applicant.”
- Where you address different readers in different parts of the document, define “you” in each context: “How do different types of borrowers apply for a loan? If you are a small business, you must submit… If you are an individual, you must submit…”
|Facilities in regional and district offices are available to the public during normal business hours for requesting copies of agency records.||If you are a private citizen, you can get copies of our records at any regional or district office…|
It’s especially important to define “you” when writing to multiple audiences.
|Lessees and operators are responsible for restoring the site. You must ensure that…||Lessees and operators are responsible for restoring the site. If you are the lessee, you must monitor the operator to ensure that. If you are the operator, you must conduct all operations in a way…|
When to use “I,” “me,” “we,” and “us”
If you use a question-and-answer format, you should assume that the user is the one asking the questions. Use “I” in the questions to refer to the user. Use “we” in the responses to represent your agency.
|Submission of applications.||How do I apply?|
By using “we” to respond to questions, you state clearly what your agency requires and what your agency’s responsibilities are. Using “we” makes your agency more approachable and also helps you use fewer words. You can define “we” in the definitions sections of your document if that will help the user.
|Loan applications will be reviewed to ensure that procedures have been followed.||We review your loan application to ensure that you followed our procedures.|
|The Office of Consumer Affairs will process your application within 30 days after receipt.||We’ll process your application within 30 days of receiving it.|
Avoid using “he” or “she”
You can avoid awkwardness by using “you” to address the reader directly, rather than using “he or she” or “his or her.”
|The applicant must provide his or her mailing address and his or her identification number.||You must provide your mailing address and identification number.|
Make sure you use pronouns that clearly refer to a specific noun. If a pronoun could refer to more than one person or object in a sentence, repeat the name of the person or object or rewrite the sentence.
|After the Administrator appoints an Assistant Administrator, he or she must…||After the Administrator appoints an Assistant Administrator, the Assistant Administrator must…|
Use singular nouns and verbs
Use singular nouns and verbs to prevent confusion about whether a requirement applies to an individual or several groups. In the following example, the user might think that they need to file applications at several offices.
|Individuals and organizations wishing to apply must file applications with the appropriate offices in a timely manner.||You must apply at least 30 days before you need the certification.|
To avoid confusing the two different user groups, separate their instructions:
If you are an individual, apply at your local state office in the state where you reside.
If you are an organization, apply at the state office in the state where your headquarters is located.
For more details on addressing multiple users, see Address separate audiences separately.
- Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd edition, 1995, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, p. 643.
- Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 50 and 114.
- Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 33-38 and 70.
- Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 22.
- Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5th edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 62.