Plain language is a modest muse, as her name suggests. No rock queen, she appears simple, unassuming, natural, unadorned by sequins or diamonds. She is neither sophisticated nor scholarly—yet she is widely followed.
Governments pursue and promote plain language. So do companies, not-for-profits and other organisations.
Their reasons are many and various. What’s your own reason for admiring or disliking communication in plain language?
- Saving money. Where communication is garbled, time is wasted on non-compliance and unnecessary phone calls. One example: Margaret Thatcher saw chaos and waste in the complex forms used by the UK government agencies. She initiated a revision of all government forms, triggering multi-million pound savings.
- Democracy, human rights. One example: the 1997 South African Constitution was written in plain language as an essential part of the democratic process. As “Everyone is equal before the law”, so everyone must be able to understand their rights.
- Web accessibility. Web content must be understandable: this is one of four principles underpinning the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). Any government committed to WCAG 2.0 compliance is committed to putting all government web content in plain language. Reason: so that information can be accessed by everyone, regardless of disabilities.
- Usability. How can any product be usable if the documentation is not clear? How can any information be usable if it is not understandable? Plain language is one essential benchmark for usability.
- Consumer rights. One example: South Africa’s Consumer Protection Act requires that information be given in plain language, as a fundamental right. Many countries have similar requirements.
- Help for new immigrants. One example: Mariko Nakayama of Nakano City translates city documents into ultra-plain Japanese for new immigrants. They cannot understand or follow regulations otherwise.
- Clear legislation. Numerous countries work systematically to make all new legislation easy to understand. Some examples: UK, Sweden, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Korea, the Netherlands and Portugal.
- Clear legal language. Lawyers have always been prominent in the plain language movement. Some examples: Clarity (Journal of the international association promoting plain legal language); many legal firms follow a plain language policy; Japan has a project to simplify courtroom vocabulary.
- Ease of translation. One example: the EU Fight the Fog initiative to make official documents simpler is based on the need for easy translation into other EU languages.
- Financial transparency. One example: in New Zealand, the Financial Management Authority’s new Guidance Note on Effective Disclosure requires investment statements to use plain language. Gobbledegook played a big part in the recent credit crunch.
- Protecting a language. Example: Sweden’s trail-blazing plain language culture arose partly from the uniqueness of the Swedish language: strong protection required that all Swedish people can understand important documents.
- Civil Service Code of Conduct. State servants in many countries follow standards of integrity. These are likely to include fairness, impartiality, responsibility and trustworthiness. Communicating in plain language is an integral part of such standards.
Clarity—Journal of the international association promoting plain legal language
Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: the case for plain language in business, government, and law, by Joseph Kimble
FMA Guidance Note: Effective Disclosure
Image: Zazzle.com (By the way, hats off to New Zealand’s equestrian team.)