Language, voice and tone

Guidance on language, voice and tone on NHS inform

Plain English

NHS inform is for everyone in Scotland and it aims to reach as many people as possible. This means that all audiences should understand the content on NHS inform.

Plain English makes content as accessible to as many people as possible. It’s not about ‘dumbing down’. 

What is plain English?

Adults have 2500 to 5000 common words that are easy to recognise and understand. Writing in plain English (thinking of the reading age of a 9 year old) will be accessible to most users.

Using a longer word (8 to 9 letters) means users are more likely to skip shorter words that follow it (words of 3 to 5 letters). If you use longer, more complicated words, users will skip more.

Example of plain English

This is an example of language that is not in plain English:

‘The recently implemented categorical standardisation procedure on waste oil should not be applied before 1 January 2014.’

This could be changed to:

‘Do not use the new waste oil standards before 1 January 2014.’

How to write in plain English


  • use words that are appropriate


  • do not use vague words that can lead to confusion
  • do not use jargon, either as specific words or in a complex sentence structure
  • do not use formal or long words if shorter ones can be used instead
  • do not use metaphors

Tone and voice

The voice of NHS inform content should be consistent across all products and services. It should be:

  • straightforward
  • active where possible
  • accessible

Types of tone

The tone will differ across the site depending on what’s being discussed. For example:

  • self-management (illnesses, conditions and symptoms) – should be reassuring, supportive and authoritative
  • prevention (healthy living, lifestyle advice, prevention) – should be friendly, motivational and upbeat
  • anticipation (health risks and benefits, life stages) – should be encouraging, reassuring and supportive