A blog about using plain English

We need to use plain English. Plain English gets our message across quickly and easily. People understand it the first time they read it. Plain English is efficient. It uses short sentences. Is that plain enough for you?

The challenge we face is balancing plain English with getting across our brand personality and our key messages. We need to be welcoming and approachable. We also need to express our expertise. So we don’t want our English to be plain yet dull and cold. We want it to be warm, engaging and compelling. All this applies whether we are writing for print, the website or email communications.

Academia tends to have a strained relationship with plain English. I had a brief conversation recently with a colleague who has a pretty high level of academic qualification. They admitted that the further up the educational tree/mountain/ladder you climb, the more complicated the language you are encouraged to use.

In other words, Professors are told to talk fancy.


The reason behind all the jargon, complicated sentence structure, academic language and even Latin is to give an impression of high intellect, of expertise. Half the battle, surely? However, if the great idea is hidden behind too many long, complicated words, the meaning will be lost to too many people. It comes across as cleverness for the sake of cleverness.

Here is an interesting point from Gerry McGovern. In the past, when someone read a sentence they didn’t understand, they saw it as their fault: “I must be stupid.” Now, they see it as the fault of the organisation: “They must be stupid.”

So our audience knows that it is our job to make sure they understand the message. And they are right. We want people to understand what we are doing. We want everyone to understand that we are experts in our fields.

Clarity and brevity

And the trick is that other experts in these fields would much prefer us to use simple language. Another colleague shared this little treat with me.

In 2012, research by Christopher Trudeau at the Thomas M Cooley Law School in Michigan into the use of language found that the more educated the person, the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English. They may understand complicated language but they want clarity and brevity. They simply don’t have time for all those long words.

Professor Trudeau also found that the more complex the idea, the greater the need for plain English. This is a big challenge for us. But it is one we need to overcome. It means that all our producers of content need to understand the idea before they can express it in plain (but engaging) language.


And I haven’t even talked about accessibility yet. I’m going to do that now. Our aim is to be the most accessible university in the UK – both physically and online.

Making our content accessible means using language that everyone understands. And everyone includes the potential student, researcher, business partner, business partner’s granny. They could be 15 years old, they could be 83. They could have a PhD in biochemistry or they could have no qualifications at all.

Beyond our stated aim, we also have a legal requirement to make our website content accessible. There are standards we must meet. Many of these are technical. In terms of the language we use, the standard is simple:

  • Make text content readable and understandable

Ideally, text should be written to be easily readable by all levels of ability. If we do feel the need to use technically advanced text, we should provide easy-read alternatives to explain what we mean.

So call a spade a spade. Don’t call it a long-handled slab of sharpened forged steel.

Writing tools

There are a couple of tools you can use to test your language. These tools will judge you on your sentence length and structure, use of passive voice and word choice.

Within Word, you can access readability statistics through File/Options/Proofing. Tick Use readability statistics and OK that. Then use the grammar check (F7). You will have to go through the checks but you will then get a list of statistics. These include Flesch reading ease. You should be aiming for a score between 60 and 70. By complete accident, this blog scores 65.

You can also use Hemingway Editor, which will give you a readability score. This relates to the education level (US grades) required to understand your text. The app judges this blog to be readable by sixth-graders. They are 11 to 12 years old.


For anyone across the University who is producing content for the website, we do offer Writing for the Web training. This gives you an idea of the type of language you should be using. Contact digitalsupport@derby.ac.uk.

And the general Style Guide for Writing is available on the Marketing and Student Recruitment page on staff ID Intranet @ Derby (under Professional Services).

There is also a useful piece from the Government Digital Service’s senior writers with ten tips for writing for blog posts, opinion pieces or presentations.

How To Write The Perfect Alt Text

What is alt text?

Alt text is the descriptive text that is supplied alongside an image in a website. It is the text that is used if an image doesn’t load or for other reasons may not be visible to our users. As they aren’t often seen, they are easily overlooked, however, for sight-impaired users they can be an absolutely essential part of your web page. Blind or partially sighted users, for example, will probably rely on a nifty bit of software built into all mobile phones and most browsers called a “screen reader” which will read a web page’s content out loud, including the alt text. So you can see that it’s absolutely vital that they are well written so that everybody has the opportunity to understand our content equally.

Additionally, accessibility is the law. There is a requirement for websites to meet minimum accessibility standards. As a University, our aim is to not only meet but exceed those targets, not just because the law requires it but because it’s the right thing to do.

Writing the perfect alt text

Take a look at the following image taken from the University’s website which we’ll use as our example:

A smiling female University of Derby student sitting on a settee in halls holding a mug of coffee

First and foremost, alt text needs to describe the image. It should help users who read it to understand the content of the image. There can be a tendency to write alt text in a way that supports the content of the page but doesn’t describe the image. For example:

“Find out more about our halls”

This kind of thing is no good at all. That won’t help anybody understand the content of the image. It tells us that we’re looking at the accommodation section – but we already know that. It tells us nothing about the image. A much better alt text would be:

“Woman drinking coffee.”

We’ve immediately given the alt text purpose. It’s describing the image. It’s still not great though. We should try to give the image some context. Images on our website should tell a story; they should have a reason to be there. How about:

“University of Derby student drinking coffee”?

Better. We’ve given the image some context. This is no longer a picture of a random stranger drinking coffee, this is one of our students drinking coffee, which makes more sense in the context of the website. Of course, there’s still an issue with this. This alt text could also describe any of the following photos:

A group of alternate photos about coffee to show that alt text can be ambiguous

The recommended maximum number of characters for alt text is 125, as a lot of screen readers will stop reading out the alt text if it’s longer than that. Let’s see if we can use some more of those characters to give our alt text some clarity:

“A smiling female University of Derby student sitting on a settee in halls holding a mug of coffee”

Now that’s an alt text, and we’ve only used 97 characters!

We’ve described the image in a way that makes it distinct. We’ve given it context within the page and we’ve described the content of the image in detail. If you’re struggling to write an alt text, it might be useful to find another image that’s thematically the same and try to write alt text that fits your image but not the other. A bit like spot the difference. Use a character counter to check the length of your text – you’ll be surprised how much you can fit in just 125 characters!

When to not use alt text

There are a couple of situations where you may not need to add an alt text to an image:

If the image is purely decorative or structural. For example, if you have a fancy underline that’s been done as an image or perhaps a background gradient image. Those images don’t convey any meaning, so they won’t need an alt text.

If the image is already fully explained by the supporting page content. You might have a bar graph that is supported by a table. You wouldn’t need an alt tag for the bar graph as its content is fully supported by the table.

If you’re a web developer, it’s important to remember that the alt text property itself should always be included to meet accessibility requirements but, in these cases, it can be empty.

As a general rule of thumb: if in doubt – use alt text.

In summary:

There are some basic rules that you should follow to make sure your alt text is truly outstanding:

  • It needs to describe the image
  • It needs to give the image context within the site
  • It needs to be fewer than 125 characters
  • Do not use phrases like “image of” or “picture of”, let the screen reader handle that