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Writing planning documents and laws in plain English using Microsoft Word


Dear Leader
Staff member
There's a lot of good, comprehensive guides to Plain English writing out there. I'll save the links for another post. I just sent this out to the other planners I work with, and thought maybe the Cyburbia community would find it useful.

A while back, someone asked me about setting up Microsoft Word to help with writing in plain English. Since we're probably in front of our computers a lot more lately, it's probably a good opportunity to let you know how to do it. I'm assuming you're all using Office 365, but the same settings should work no matter what version you're using, PC or Mac.

-- In the top drop-down menus on Microsoft Word, click on "File". Click on "Options" at the bottom of the blue bar.

-- The "Word Options" window will pop up. On the left side of the Word Options window, click on "Proofing". The right side of the window will read "Change how Word corrects and formats your text."

-- On the right side of that window, under "When correcting spelling and grammar in Word", check these boxes.

[✓] Check spelling as you type.
[✓] Mark grammar errors as you type. (Turn this off if you think Word is "bleeding" too much. You can still run the grammar checker later to catch anything. You can also tell Word to ignore specific "errors" that it finds.)
[✓] Check grammar and refinements in the Editor Pane.
[✓] Show readability statistics.

-- Under the checkboxes, next to "Writing Style", select "Grammar & Refinements" from the drop-down box. Click on the "Settings" button next to it. The "Grammar Settings" window will pop up.

-- In the Grammar Settings window, check these boxes. (You can check other boxes if you want, but they aren't critical for plain English.) The most important categories are "clarity" and "conciseness". If you check a box, it doesn't mean Word will always protest when your writing has one of these traits. It will note when there's usage that's not proper or following a certain rule, though.

[✓] Adjective used instead of adverb
[✓] Adverb instead of adjective
[✓] Comma splice
[✓] Comma with conjunctive adverb
[✓] Commas around descriptive clause
[✓] Commonly confused phrases
[✓] Commonly confused words
[✓] Comparative use
[✓] Correlative conjunction mismatch
[✓] Embarrassing words ("Freudian slip" typos)
[✓] Incorrect auxiliary
[✓] Incorrect negation
[✓] Incorrect number ending
[✓] Incorrect pronoun case
[✓] Incorrect reflexive pronoun use
[✓] Incorrect verb form
[✓] Incorrect verb form after auxiliary
[✓] Missing comma
[✓] Modal confusion
[✓] Multiple modals
[✓] Punctuation
[✓] Question mark missing
[✓] Repeated auxiliary
[✓] Too many determiners
[✓] Unnecessary hyphen
[✓] Use of plain verb form
[✓] Use of "will" and "would"
[✓] Verb use

[✓] Adverb placement
[✓] Double negation
[✓] Jargon (may trigger a lot, but sometimes there's no other option for planning-specific terms)
[✓] Passive voice
[✓] Sentence structure
[✓] Simpler wording
[✓] Split infinitives
[✓] Use of euphemisms

[✓] Conjunction overuse
[✓] Nationalizations
[✓] Wordiness
[✓] Words expressing uncertainty

(Don't check anything.)

[✓] Cultural bias
[✓] Ethnic slurs
[✓] Gender bias
[✓] Gender-specific language
[✓] Sexual orientation bias

Punctuation conventions
[✓] Comma with adverbials
[✓] Oxford comma (just my preference)

[✓] Superfluous expressions
[✓] Unsuitable expressions

[✓] Cliches
[✓] Collective nouns
[✓] Vague or unnecessary adverbs
[✓] Weak verbs

-- Click on "OK" in the Grammar Settings window.

-- Make sure the dropdown menu next to "Writing Style" still says "Grammar & Refinements".

-- Click on "OK" in the Word Options window.

-- To check grammar, click on "Review" in the top drop-down menu on Microsoft Word, and then "abc ✓ Check Document" in the toolbar. Word doesn't always understand the context of what you wrote, so some suggestions won't be relevant. Still, even when I think I wrote something in plain English, the grammar checker will find things that I can make more readable. You can click on "ignore once", and Word should remember that when you're working on the document later.

-- At the end of the check, a window will pop up with various stats -- words, characters, average sentence length, sentences per paragraph, and readability score.

In my opinion, the readability score that matters most is the Flesch grade level. The most recent working draft of the FBC scores 9.9, which means a high school sophomore can easily understand it.

A good Flesch reading ease score should be over 60 ("standard" to "very easy"). Even with plain English, the Flesch reading ease score for the FBC draft is 46.1 ("difficult"). Why? It has a lot of longer words and planning-specific terms, with no shorter substitutes. For example, "neighborhood" has 12 letters, and "development" 4 syllables.

Average sentence length should be 20 or less; the lower, the better. The FBC averages 13.1 words/sentence. If your document has a lot of tables or lists, the readability scores will be less accurate. Just shoot for a lower grade level, higher reading ease score, and shorter sentence length.

My challenge to other planners, for the time that we're working at home: start working on your plain English skills with this.
  • Avoid passive voice with a known actor. Place the actor/subject before the action/verb.
  • utilize → use
  • prior to → before
  • shall → must
  • adjacent to → next to
  • commence → start
  • demonstrate → show
  • currently, at the present time, at this point in time, etc. → now
Here's a list of other substitutions, if you want to take it a bit further: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/the-a-z-of-alternative-words.html

Bonus content, just for Cyburbia users and visitors
Pro tip plain English principles for writing a zoning code, or any other planning document:
  • Don't use jargon or formal terms for the sake of gravitas, or to make something sound more authoritative.
  • Use shorter, familiar words (“use”, “must”, “before”) instead of more formal terms (“utilize”, “shall”, “prior to”).
  • Use the Germanic form instead of the Latinate form of an English word, where the meaning is the same, and it won't sound awkward.
  • Don't use legal jargon (“said”, “aforementioned”, “notwithstanding the forgoing”) or Latin.
  • Avoid unnecessary words, like compound constructions (“in the event that” meaning “if”), coupled synonyms (“null and void”), word-numeral doublets (“one hundred (100)”), and filler terms (“hereby”, “the fact that”).
  • Don't shotgun (“No structure shall hereinafter from this point onward in time be built, placed, erected, assembled, constructed, extended, expanded, enlarged, augmented, modified, altered, changed, transformed, transmogrified …”).
  • Use active voice (“We adopted a new code”) over passive voice (“A new code was adopted by us”) where there's a definite actor.
  • Use positive or prescriptive wording (“50% or more …”, “Roads must be paved”) instead of negative wording (“No less than 50% …”, “A road shall not be unpaved”, "From this point in time forward, no road shall hereinafter be without pavement") where possible.
  • Break up topics and concepts into separate paragraphs, sentences, and bulleted lists.
  • List rules before their exceptions or conditions.
  • Use inclusive terms that don’t unintentionally “other” people or groups (examples: “place of worship” instead of “church”).
  • Use short, simple purpose statements that don’t overexplain everything.
  • Use tables, lists, graphics, and flowcharts to make complicated concepts easier to understand.
  • Keep sentences short, ideally 20 words or less.
  • If something sounds awkward when you speak it, reword it, even if it might lower readability stats.
Also, be consistent with your writing.
  • Use parallel construction in a hierarchy or list.
  • Be consistent with vocabulary and numerical ranges. Avoid synonyms where possible. For example, in a code, use either “street” or “road”, but don't use both interchangeably.
  • Avoid different terms with different meanings in the same context. For example, don't use “lot”, “parcel”, and “tract” throughout the code as if they all mean the same thing.
  • Don't capitalize words just to make them stand out.
  • Use singular number and present tense where possible.
  • Use the indefinite article (“a” or “an”) instead of the definite article (“the”) for nouns that aren’t particular.
  • Use symbols to shorten text where possible.

Suburb Repairman

moderator in moderation
Staff member
Hey Dan,

Out of curiosity, have you identified a similar method/ability using Adobe InDesign? I do most of my plan documents in it due to its better graphic design capabilities, but I've noticed I'm much more prone to violating plain English. On the plus side, InDesign is much better about image and graphic stability. Because of that, I tend to shift as much content as possible into images, graphics, charts, etc. because I consider those to be preferred by readers.


I am not a planner but an inspector, and I have kicked off the Microsoft shackles and only use open source software.

As a former almost English major I use this guide to writing everything.

SAAD. Simple, active, affirmative, declarative sentences. Works for all formats.


Dear Leader
Staff member
Out of curiosity, have you identified a similar method/ability using Adobe InDesign? I do most of my plan documents in it due to its better graphic design capabilities, but I've noticed I'm much more prone to violating plain English.
To be honest, my InDesign skills are kind of lacking. I've used it, but never bothered with the grammar checker. I draft in Word, and the plan is to have a final FBC using InDesign.

As a former almost English major I use this guide to writing everything.

SAAD. Simple, active, affirmative, declarative sentences. Works for all formats.

I was a convert to plain English when a co-worker from my first job lent me a copy of Plain English for Lawyers. Still, I look back on previous codes and documents I wrote, and think "I could have done a lot better." They didn't have legalese or "faahncy English", but there's still some passive voice, and some other areas where writing could have been tighter.

The vast majority of planning legislation I've seen from upstate New York is in old-school uber-legalese -- among the worst I've seen. (I blame old attorneys, old codes, planning practice that's a few decades behind what you'd see in faster growing areas, and the prevalence of copy-something-else-nearby-and-fill-in-the-blanks coding.) For regular writing, the unofficial institutional "style" where I work is to shun Germanic forms, and use a lot of passive voice and "gravitas". I wanted the FBC I'm working on to be the polar opposite -- as simple as possible yet still legally defensible. Our municipal attorney loves it.

The "plain English" FBCs from the "big two" FBC consultants don't use legalese, but they still use a lot of passive voice and negative phrasing ("No taller than 3 feet" instead of "Up to 3 feet"). I ran a lot of excerpts of their codes through MS Word and online readability checkers, just for the hell of it. They're more readable than an old-school Euclidean code, but a lot of prose still scores at a Flesch-Kinkaid grade level of 13 or more. F-K grade level of the FBC I'm working on is now at 9.6, and my target is 9.0.