Topic 8: Writing in Plain English, Part 1

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Power of the Pen



Language is a powerful tool that can be used or abused. Some of the words most commonly misused in English, including at the United Nations, indicate the level of compliance expected and the amount of discretion allowed. It is particularly important when writing guidance to make sure you use the correct term to convey requirements versus recommendations versus requests.

For example, the following words are often used interchangeably in guidance documents despite the fact that they have very different meanings:

  • Can – Is capable of
  • May – Has permission to
  • Must – Obligated to
  • Shall – Required to or will (in future)
  • Should – Ought to
  • Will – Required to (except when referring to future)