Writing for English language learners

When ytipsou’re preparing public legal education and information (PLE) materials, it’s important to remember that much of what we consider “everyday English” can be confusing for people who are not native English speakers.

Here are some tips on making sure your PLE is accessible to readers who have English as a second (or third, or fourth) language:

  • Don’t assume punctuation is the same in all languages. Readers whose native languages use different scripts might not understand even the most basic rules of punctuation. For example, did you know that Greek uses the semi-colon (;) as a question mark? Use minimal punctuation and short sentences.
  • Avoid idioms. Idioms are expressions that mean something different than the literal meanings of the individual words – for example “you’re pulling my leg” or “drop someone a line”. As a result, they can be difficult to understand, especially for English language learners.
  • Avoid phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a verb that’s followed by a preposition or adverb – for example, “give up”, “put down” or “get over”. These combinations create meanings different from the original verbs. Phrasal verbs look easy – they’re short and have very few syllables. But their looks are deceiving.
  • Simplify verb tenses. If you’ve ever tried to learn a second language, you know that it can be hard to remember verb tenses because there are many of them. You can use the more common and simple verb tenses, like the present tense, for both present and future situations – for example, “I see my lawyer next week” or “You have a hearing tomorrow”. This eliminates the need for the auxiliary verb “will” that is often unnecessary and confusing.

See CLEO’s Better Legal Information Handbook for more information on clear writing tips for print materials.

One Comment

  1. Author: Ingrid Sapona

    on September 26, 2014 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    I’ve been working in plain language for a long time and you made a point I’d never heard before — the point about different punctuation marks. (I was going to use an exclamation mark after that but now I know better.) What an important point. Thank you for mentioning that.

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