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ICAC style guide

Speaking Plainly: Plain Language Law for Non-Lawyers, 12th September 2002

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Independent Commission Against Corruption Plain English Guideline


Using Plain English
The basic rules of Plain English
Other matters of style and usage
Punctuation and grammar
From 'Yes Minister' language to 'Dear Mum' language
Use of acronyms and abbreviations
First and second person pronouns
Portrayal of people with a disability
In summary - a nine point plan for Plain English
Correspondence checklist
Short report checklist

“Little people use big words, big people use little words.”  (Emperor Justinian).

The Commission acknowledges the use of the Queensland Department of Transport/Department of Main Roads “Policies and guidelines for application of plain English Version 1.21 January 2002” © Dr George Stern in preparing this Part.

1.         Using Plain English

The Commission encourages all officers to write to each other, to agencies, councils and to members of the public in language that is:

  • clear and easy to understand
  • pleasant to read
  • modern, well punctuated and grammatically correct.

The above three features will promote efficiency and improve the public image of the Commission.  This applies equally to letters, memoranda and reports.

2.         The basic rules of plain English

  • Keep your sentences short.  On average, a sentence should be one-and-a-half printed lines – about fifteen words – in length.  Vary the sentence lengths from half a line to two lines.
  • Keep the language normal, everyday, decent, respectful (rather in the style of a letter to “Dear Mum”); not elevated, pompous, official (as laughed at in the “Yes Minister” series).  Use the same language in all documents, whether you are writing a letter to Bloggs in the bush or a brief for the Commissioner – both are human beings who deserve equal clarity and courtesy.
  • Use first person words (I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, ours, ourselves) and second person words (you, your, yours, yourself, yourselves).  This will give the reader the impression that it is “I” who is writing to “you” about “our” business.
  • The overuse of capitals tends to be intimidating as well as old-fashioned.
  • Avoid the passive, turn passive sentences into active ones.  Here is the way to do it.

a.  First: identify a passive verb by finding one item each from the left-hand and right-hand columns below.

Left Hand Right Hand
Was +verb+n (seen, taken, done …)
Were +verb+d (noted, prepared, reviewed, made …)
Beverb+t (sent, kept, dealt …)
Example: Your letter was received last week. (Left hand: "was" + right hand: "received".)

b. Second: if the sentence does not already have an agent (a doer), add the agent after the word “by”.

Example: Your letter was received by the director last week.  (Addition: “by the director”.)

c. Third: put the agent of the sentence (“the director”) before the verb; the target (“your letter”) after the verb.

Example:  The director received your letter last week.

The use of the active allows the reader to know right away who is responsible for the action.  Here are another three examples

Your appeal will be considered.The tribunal will consider your appeal.
The document has been amended.The branch head has amended the document.
The Commissioner is to be briefed.Kim Jones is to brief the Commissioner.
  • The Division has a policy of no passives – except for some that are “technically passive”, example, “I am pleased” and “I am surprised”.
  • The ultimate secret of style is not to adopt one at all.  Just write in your natural voice – not in the artificial tones of a public servant.

4.         Other matters of style and usage
  • Except in special cases, keep your letters to one page each.  If necessary, summarise the message on one page and add supporting material in an attachment.
  • It is all right occasionally to start sentences with “And” or with “But”.  Every author who has ever written in English has done so.  Just take any book from your bookshelf and check it out.  Of course, you should not overdo the use of initial “And” or “But”: once or twice a page is enough.
  • Mixing first, second and third person words is all right if the sense demands it: “I told them that you would arrive by midnight.”  But do not mix persons if they refer to the same people: “The Commission has decided that we will issue a permit.”  This sentence should read either: “We have decided that we will issue a permit” or “The Commission has decided that it will issue a permit.”
  • Modern guidelines for writing numbers as words and as digits vary.  At the Commission, use words for numbers between zero and 10. “I went on a trip with three other people, and we visited 14 places.”
  • Go easy on adverbs and adjectives.  Make your nouns do most of the work.  Modifiers won’t save a weak or inaccurate noun out of a corner.

5.  Punctuation and grammar

Here are some thoughts on punctuation and grammar:

a. Everyone, especially anyone who reads a lot, has an intuitive feeling for what is right and what is wrong in language.  You know intuitively that the sentence “I some chocolate want” is wrong.  It should be “I want some chocolate.”  So learn to trust your intuition.  If a sentence feels right, go for it; if it feels wrong, change it.

b.  You can learn a lot from doing a “reality check” from real-life texts. So next time you read a book, a magazine or a newspaper, pause in your reading for a few minutes and study the texts for points of punctuation and usage.  Notice how published writers use hyphens and apostrophes, capital and lower case letters, “who” and “whom” or “which” and “that”, what sentence structures they use and how they vary the length of their sentences.

c.   In many ways, there is a whole-of-government approach to providing services to the people of NSW.  But, presently, plain English is applied differently across the whole of government.

Some particular issues:

  • Use commas sparingly - don’t use them after “and”, “but” or “or”.  Don’t use them between a month and a year in a date. 
  • Dangling participles or floating participles – participles are verbs ending in “ing”.  They dangle or float if the subject of the verb doesn’t agree with the subject of the sentence.  For example, “When discussing race and gender, sensitivity is necessary.”  Sensitivity is the subject, but doesn’t do the discussing. 
  • It’s vs Its – remember that it’s is short for it is, and its isn’t.  Its means belonging to. 
  • Less vs fewer  - less means not as much while fewer means not as many.  You earn less money by selling fewer books.
  • Nor – you can’t go wrong if you only use it after neither.  He has neither this nor that.
  • Prepositions at the end  - the old rule that prepositions (in, on to, with, from, at, etc.) shouldn’t be at the end of a sentence is no longer observed.  So carry on.
  • Split infinitives – an infinitive is a verb coming after “to”. To run etc.  A split infinitive is where another word comes in between “to” and the verb.  He started to quickly run home.  They are best avoided.  But sometimes they are more graceful: “To boldly go…”
  • Which vs that – two rules of thumb help.  If the phrase needs a comma, you probably need to use “which”. The ICAC, which is based in Sydney, was set up in 1988.  Another rule of thumb is to put “by the way” after “which” as a check.  So “The ICAC, which (by the way) is based in Sydney, was set up in 1988” sounds right.  But “The investigation agency which (by the way) has the most coercive powers is the ICAC” doesn’t.
  • Who vs Whom – a simple test is to replace who/whom with he/him.  If he sounds right, use who; if him is right, use whom.  Since he did it, use “who did it”.  But since we give something to him, not he, use “to whom”.  

6. From “Yes, Minister” language to “Dear Mum” language –

Some suggested changes follow:

© Copyright Dr George Stern

a further meeting   another meeting
   able to   can
   above-mentioned   mentioned above
   accordingly   so / therefore
   additional   more
   additionally   and
   adjacent to   next to / near
   advice has been received that   my officers have told me that
   advise you that / of   let you know ...
   aforementioned   mentioned before / mentioned above
   all things considered   so / therefore
   alter / alteration   change
   amongst   among
   anticipate   expect
   approximately   roughly / about
   as a consequence of   because of
   as noted previously   as I have said (written) above
   as soon as practicable   as soon as possible
   as you would be aware   as you know
   ascertain   find out / check
   assist / assistance   help
   at an early opportunity   soon
   at this point in time   now / at present
   at your earliest convenience   as soon as possible
   attached hereto   attached please find
   be applicable   applies
   be in accordance with   accords with
   by virtue of   under / because of
   commence   start / begin
   commencement   start / beginning
   completion   end / finish
   comprise   make up
   concerning   about
   concur   agree
   concurrence   agreement
   consequent   later
   consequently   so / therefore
   considerable amount of   a lot of / many / much
   contiguous to   next to / near
   conversely   but / on the other hand
   currently   now / at present
   dated   of
   dispatch   send
   due to   because of
   e.g.   for example / for instance
   emanating from   coming from
   embark on   start
   endeavour   try
   et al   and others
   etc / et cetera   and so on
   experienced delays   there were delays / had delays
   extremely   very
   facilitate   enable / make possible
   failed to   did not
   falls within the responsibility of Bloggs   Bloggs is responsible for
   familiarise you with   make you familiar with
   for the duration of   during
   for the purpose of   to / for
   for your consideration   for your decision / for your information
   forthwith   immediately
   forward   send
   further developments   more developments / new developments
   a further meeting   another meeting
   further to my letter concerning   I am writing again about
   furthermore   and / also
   hence   so / therefore
   henceforth   from now on
   hereby / herewith   here / please find
   hereunder   below
   however   but
   I acknowledge receipt of   thank you for
   I am advised that   my department tells me that
   I am directed to advise you that   the (minister) has asked me to tell you that
   I am grateful for   thank you for
   I appreciate that   I understand that / I know that
   I appreciate your   thank you for your
   I can confirm that   (Leave it out.)
   I consider that   I think that / I believe that
   I refer to your letter dated   thank you for your letter of
   I regret the delay / the delay is regretted   I am sorry for the delay
   I trust this addresses your concerns   I hope this answers your points (questions)
   I will be pleased to   I will be happy to
   I wish to advise that   (Leave it out.)
   I would appreciate it if   please / would you please / could you please
   I would be grateful if   please / would you please / could you please
   i.e.   that is
   if so-and-so transpires   if so-and-so happens
   in a timely manner   as soon as possible
   in accordance with section 12   under section 12
   in conjunction with   with / together with
   in consideration of   for / because of
   in excess of   more than
   in keeping with   under
   in order to   to
   in relation to   about
   in respect of / to   about
   in situ   in place
   in spite of the fact that   though / although
   in terms of   in
   in the course of   during
   in the event of   if
   in the majority of cases   in most cases
   in the vicinity of   near
   in this regard   (Leave it out.)
   in this respect   (Leave it out.)
   in toto   in total / altogether / all up
   in view of the fact that   because
   inform you of / inform you that   let you know
   inter alia   among other things / among others
   is applicable   applies
   is dependent on / upon   depends on
   is located in   is in
   it appears to be the case that   it seems that
   it is considered that   I think that / I believe that
   it is incumbent on you   you should / you must / you need to
   it is my considered view that   I think that / I believe that
   it should be noted that   (Leave it out.)
   locate   find / put / place
   location   place
   manner   way
   Messrs A and B   Mr A and Mr B
   negligible amount of   a little / a few
   notify you / me   let you / me know
   notwithstanding   despite / although
   obtain   get
   occurred   happened / took place
   owing to   because of
   paradigm   model
   per annum   a year
   pertains to   is about
   please be advised that   (Leave it out.)
   please do not hesitate to contact me / Bloggs   please contact (get in touch with) me / Bloggs
   predominantly   mainly / mostly
   previous   last / latest / earlier
   previously   earlier
   prior to   before
   pro tem   for the time being
   proceeded to (walk / drive)   walked / drove (started to walk / drive)
   provide you with further information   let you have / give you more information
   provided / providing   if
   purchase   buy
   pursuant to clause 12   under clause 12
   rectify   fix / correct / repair
   regarding   about
   relating to   about
   rendered   made
   reply   answer
   require   need
   requirement   need
   respond / response   answer
   retain   keep
   reveal   show / tell
   review the matter   look at the matter again
   should it be necessary   if necessary
   Should you require further information, please  do not hesitate to contact Bloggs   If you need more information, please get in touch with Bloggs (Or leave it out.)
   should you wish to   if you want to / if you like
   significant amount of   a lot of / much / many
   status quo   as is / the existing state
   subsequent to   After
   subsequently   Later
   substantial amount of   a lot of / much / many
   tacit understanding   informal / unstated / understanding
   take the matter up with Bloggs   contact Bloggs about the matter
   the delay (the mistake) is regretted   I am sorry for the delay (the mistake)
   thereby   because of this
   thus   so / therefore
   transmit   Send
   transpire   Happen
   unable to   Cannot
   undertake to do so-and-so   will (must) do so-and-so
   upon   on
   utilise   use
   verify   check / confirm
   via   through / by way of
   viz   namely
   whereas   because
   whilst   while
   with a view to   to
   with due regard for (something)   taking (something) into account
   with immediate effect   straight away / immediately
   with reference to   about
   with regard to   about
   with respect to   about
   you may care to   you might like to
   you will be required to   you need to / you should / you must
   your letter of the 20th instant   your letter of 20 May

7. Use of acronyms and abbreviations

The Division has adopted modern usage of acronyms and abbreviations.

Examples of changes to Division correspondence follow.

  • The Commissioner has recently approved the 2001-02 to 2005-06 Corporate Plan (CP).  The CP provides for……
  • There is no need to show the full wording of an acronym or abbreviation that would be well known to the reader – for example NSW, Qantas and ICAC.
  • They travelled 150km at an average speed of 70km/h and reached Sydney by 4.00pm.
  • The ICAC has a total budget of more than $15 m for 2001-02.

8. First and second person pronouns, in preference to depersonalised writing

Reference to “my agency”, “our agency”, “we” (referring to the Commission) and “us” is appropriate.  But, when the Commissioner has not yet reached a final decision, she might want to detach herself from actions to date and so refer to “advice from Commission staff”.

9. Portrayal of people with a disability

Focus on the person and not the disability.  Do this by putting the person first.  For example, use person with a disability instead of disabled person.

10. In summary – a nine point plan for plain English

a. Shorter letters and internal minutes – desirably one page; maximum of two pages.

b. Shorter sentences – on average, sentences should be one-and-a-half printed lines or about fifteen words.  But you should also have some short sentences and the occasional longer one.

c. No passives – except for some that are “technically passive”, for example, “I am pleased”, “I am surprised”.

d.  Use of “Dear Mum” language, rather than the traditional “Yes, Minister”.

e.  Less use of capital letters.

f.   Use of acronyms and abbreviations – for example 5km and $21m. 

g.   First and second person pronouns, in preference to depersonalised writing.

h.  Portrayal of people with a disability.

i.   More flexibility for authors in punctuation and grammar – there are mandated standards but there also are “author options” for equally-valid choices.  The only requirement is consistency within each document.

Correspondence checklist

3 key rules

  • Average sentence length of one and a half lines
  • ‘Dear Mum’ language
  • Active voice in most situations

  • Minute for writing internally
  • Letter for writing externally

  • Minute head for minutes
  • Letter head for letters

Left justify except for articulated items

Good spacing between elements

Sequence of correspondence

  • File or reference number
  • Unpunctuated address block (name/title/organisation/address (not all caps)
  • Salutation (unpunctuated)
  • Optional subject heading (no “Re:” and no punctuation)
  • Body
  • Complimentary close (“Yours sincerely” if salutation is personal otherwise “Yours faithfully”)
  • Unpunctuated signature block (name/title/section or branch)
  • Date
  • Enclosures

Keep to one page if possible with attachments

Sequence of ideas (Why am I writing/What needs elaboration/What is the follow up?)
  • If initiating, state in brief and general terms the purpose
  • If replying, state what you received, the date and the topic of the correspondence
  • In the middle, elaborate on your reply or what details are necessary
  • In the close, state what follow up is required.

© Dr George Stern

Short report checklist

3 key rules

  • Average sentence length of one and a half lines
  • ‘Dear Mum’ language
  • Active voice in most situations

Left justify except for articulated items


  • Before text, insert file number/recipient details/heading
  • After text, insert writer’s name/title/location and the date

Articulate items using paragraph numbering, dot-dash, alpha-numeric or decimal numbering

A long juicy header using either

  • A virtual sentence – “Your approval needed for…”
  • Short heading/colon/expansion – “X Project: your approval needed”

First sub-heading is purpose – state the purpose of the report

Use sub-headings

Arrange ideas logically

Make sure report is factual – dates, times figures and relevant data

Present the argument from both sides – include pros and cons/risk analysis/alternatives


  • Who should do something
  • What they should do
  • Where they should do it
  • When they should do it
  • How they should do it

How much it will cost

Length to be one or two pages

Use plain English

Work your draft using purpose and subheadings first and building the text, checking and amending

© Dr George Stern