Plain Language: Clear and Simple

In 1991, in the heyday of the push for plain language in government, Supply and Services Canada produced a sixty-page plain language writing guide, in each official language, called Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple. According to one of my colleagues, every federal employee at the time got a copy, and the guides were also available for sale to the public. Three years later, the same federal department published the companion volume Plain Language: Clear and Simple—Trainer’s Guide, which, in 220-odd pages, contains all of the materials a trainer might need to lead a two-day plain language course, including

  • text detailing the steps of (and reasons for) the plain language process,
  • before-and-after examples,
  • exercises,
  • transparencies,
  • a checklist,
  • handouts, and
  • references.

I found out about these resources when I was volunteering for the PLAIN 2013 conference in the fall and was able to dig through the archives of Plain Language Association International. “People still ask for them all the time,” Cheryl Stephens told me, “but they’re not easy to find.”

She wasn’t kidding. As of right now, on, one “new” copy of the sixty-page English booklet is available for $94.36; used copies are going for $46.39. I can’t find the French booklet or the trainer’s guide on Amazon at all.

And it’s no wonder they’re so coveted. Despite their age, they are still among the best plain language writing guides that I have come across. The smaller booklets are succinct and easily digestible, and the trainer’s guide is detailed and persuasive. The references are out of date, of course, as is some of the design advice, but otherwise, they remain solid references and are certainly great starting points for anyone hoping to learn more about plain language.

The federal government tweaked Crown copyright in 2013, leaving each department to manage its own copyright, but seeing as Supply and Services Canada no longer exists, I’m going to assume Crown copyright still applies to these publications, meaning that I am allowed to make copies of them as long as I distribute them for free or on a cost-recovery basis.

Before I returned the PLAIN archives to Cheryl, I photographed the pages from all three volumes and have rebuilt them from scratch, replicating the originals as closely as possible, down to the teal-and-purple palette that was so inexplicably popular in the nineties. And here they are:

The PDFs are free to download. I also published them via CreateSpace in case anyone wanted a hard copy (the list prices are set to the lowest allowable and are for cost recovery only) but primarily for discoverability, because within a few weeks of this post, all three should come up in a search on the extended Amazon network. The two little booklets are in colour, which is why they’re a little pricier, but I chose to offer the trainer’s guide in black and white, because the only colour was in the “Tips for trainers” inserts and I didn’t think it was worth increasing the price for just those twenty pages. The PDF of the trainer’s guide has those supplementary pages in colour.


  1. If anyone from the Government of Canada would like to reclaim copyright over these publications, please get in touch. I’m not making any money off of them, of course, and I don’t mind relinquishing my rights over the files, but I would like them to be available.
  2. I don’t know if a French version of the trainer’s guide exists, but if someone has it and would be willing to lend it to me or scan it for me, I would be happy to rebuild it as well. (UPDATE: Dominique Joseph tracked down a copy of the Guide du formateur, and I’ve added the rebuilt file to the above list.)


Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for providing the originals and Ruth Wilson for supplying a couple of pages that I was missing. Huge thanks also to my extraordinary volunteer proofreaders: Grace Yaginuma, who cast her eagle eyes over the English booklet and trainer’s guide, and Micheline Brodeur, who proofed the French booklet and supplied the translation for the descriptive copy on CreateSpace. Finally, a tip of the hat to whoever created these enduringly useful resources in the first place. We owe you a great debt.

UPDATE—July 21, 2014: A million thanks to Dominique Joseph for finding and sending me a copy of the Guide du formateur, proofreading the rebuilt document, and drafting the descriptive copy for CreateSpace.

20 thoughts on “Plain Language: Clear and Simple”

  1. You are amazing! Thanks for doing this Iva. I can only imagine how useful this will be for editors and authors alike.

  2. Dear Iva,
    Plain Talk was one of several publications issued by the Govt. of Canada in the 1980s/90s and yes, it was available in French as well. Another title was Telephone Talk, and my favourite was Idioms! These were marketed by Supply and Services Canada, as were all publications, but it was the Bilingualism department that wrote them. They have long been out of print, but they were very popular while they existed; I used to sell them in my store. Crown copyright still applies for the next thirty years, but as long as you are copying for personal use and receive no financial remuneration whatsoever, you’re OK. The Reason I like Idioms! is because of the illustrations; for example, to fly off in a huff. Imagine a purple elephant flying a multi-winged propeller plane into a black cloud.

  3. What a remarkable and altruistic feat you’ve pulled off, Iva. Ever since the current federal government announced that it would no longer reprint the booklet, a decision, I might add, that shocked the plain language community, we teachers of the subject have had to send students on a quest for a used copy. Now we can send them somewhere specific, and this excellent publication can begin to circulate again. Many thanks!

  4. Totally wonderful!!! Many thanks, Iva.
    I’ll see if I can find the FRENCH trainer’s guide. I’ll let you know.

    A little history about an update that almost happened:
    A few years ago, my employer decided to create a “Centre of expertise in clear communication.” An exciting project, and very much needed in Canada!

    I started working of it (all by myself… I was to be the Centre of expertise, at least at the beginning.) One of my priorities, then: update the “Clear and simple” guide, since it’s a great tool, and Canadian, and bilingual, too.

    Sadly, the update never happened, because the “Centre of expertise” idea was pushed aside (oh, the joy of ever-changing visions and priorities). Oh well… I’ll find another time and place to make that Centre happen. And the old version of the guide is still pretty good!

  5. I actually got copyright clearance on both books (ENG and FRE) to use at my government workplace. I did that in 2010, back back when it went through Publishing and Depository Services (before the 2013 change that Iva noted).

    It was a painfully long process.

  6. I have a copy of IDIOMS and somewhere I might even have the cassette tape that went with it.
    I also have the telephone talk one, called Telephone Gambits. And the three other Gambit books. A great series, had them, and all the pronunciation series from the Public Service Commission since I was an ESL teacher back in the day. They are all still great resources.
    I can’t find my copy of Clear and Simple so I will have to download it


  7. Iva, thank you for these wonderful resources. I had heard about them but had never actually seen them for myself. Tracy, I’d love to see the telephone talk one too! Dominique, is it too much to hope that priorities and visions will change again?

  8. The info is interesting because courts in my country, Philippines are still stock with legalese in writing decisions. Hence, difficult to understand. I will try downloading. Thanks to all!

  9. Many thanks to both of you Yva and Dominique. Great work. Those documents will be very useful in both French and English.

    Merci beaucoup.

  10. These sound like a godsend. I am going to look at them at work on Monday. Thank you, a thousand times thank you (in advance)!

    1. Hi Vincent,

      Yes—if you look above, you’ll find links to the French handbook and the French trainer’s manual.

  11. Hi, I’m a little late to this party but thought I would add my two cents. Many Government of Canada ‘archived’ publications including Plain Language: Clear and Simple / Pour un style clair et simple and the trainer’s guide can be found at
    EN –
    FR –
    Trainer’s guide:
    EN –
    FR –

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