Why plain language needs the strong arm of the law

London bobby shines a light
Most of us feel we have a right to get official information in a form we can understand. But is a law necessary to enforce this? At PLAIN 2009 (just-finished conference in Sydney) the answer was a resounding "yes".

Sweden is the poster-girl of plain language, and in Sweden, things are going "very well". So we'd hope, with mandatory plain language legal drafting, a 3-year university course for plain language consultants, and various well funded organisations. The requirement for government agencies to write clearly was added to 2 existing laws in the 1980s, and this helped the cause "enormously" according to Anne-Marie Hasselrot, a language expert at the Swedish Government Offices.

Julie Clement reported that in the USA plain language initiatives in government are patchy, inconsistent and sometimes unprofessional. (In the past, memoranda from three presidents created surges of activity -- but only in states, cities, towns and villages with enthusiastic officials.) Tireless plain language activists keep working to change this. They see, after decades of struggle, that only a law can make real impact on bureaucratic writing style: and the Plain Language in Government Communications Act is being processed by Congress right now.

South Africa has recently built plain language requirements into many important laws, such as a consumer protection act. Theirs is a different struggle and these new laws provide strong legal protection for citizens. "If you can't understand your rights, then you don't have any rights."

Repeatedly we were told that executive-driven plain language initiatives are vulnerable. They can only be a short-term solution. Often funding is provided for one-off projects, and then dries up: then it's back to square one. Sooner or later these independent initiatives lose momentum, and the results are always fragmented.

A change to plain language in government communications must be strongly supported at the highest level, we were told repeatedly... but even that's not enough. When those high-level officials and politicians change their jobs or portfolios, their legacy in promoting clear communication can easily slip away forever.

The need for clear communication from government is permanent. We have always needed it and we always will. There's no fear that a plain language law will become obsolete, and temporary, one-off initiatives will never be a total solution.

Maybe all countries don't need an entirely new law dedicated to clear communication from government agencies. Maybe a new clause added to an existing law would be sufficient, as in Sweden. But regardless of the path taken, legal protection for the citizens' right to clear, transparent information needs to be set in concrete.

End of rant.

PLAIN 2009 conference site

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


1 Comment


November 07, 2009

Well (and plainly) spoken! I had no idea that the US Congress was handling a plain language law, and I have to say that it makes me very happy to hear of this development. Your information is quite revealing and, in my opinion, highly interesting; hopefully more people will start picking up on this subject and pressuring government officials (in all branches) to make necessary changes.

I touched on the issue of plain language in one of my own posts, and if you care to have a look you can view it at http://translation-blog.trustedtranslations.com/the-importance-of-plain-language-2009-11-05.html.

Keep up the good work, and thanks!

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