Plain Language in a Multi-Cultural Context
October 13, 2011 is International Plain Language Day. The date coincides with the anniversary of U.S. President Obama’s signing of the Plain Language Act. That law requires U.S. government agencies to use plain language in documents relating to federal benefits and services, to filing taxes, and to complying with federal requirements. A U.S. law may not seem like something we should celebrate here in Canada, but it is.
The law signals wide-spread acceptance of the belief that people have a right to understand information that has consequences to their lives. Such laws recognize that to lead healthy, productive lives, people must be able to make sense of information about money, health, and safety, not to mention rules and regulations they must abide by as members of society.
Our right to all sorts of information from governments and businesses is well recognized. For example, because of disclosure and transparency requirements we are entitled to information about privacy policies, credit card rates and terms, possible adverse reactions from medications, etc. But such information is often incomprehensible because of jargon and legalese. When that is the case, though information may be available, people are still unable to make informed decisions, which is the rationale for providing such information.
Regardless of whether plain language is mandated, businesses and organizations should be encouraged to adopt it because doing so makes business sense. There’s evidence that companies and organizations that embrace plain language spend less time answering questions and explaining things. They also benefit from being seen as being customer-centred. Government agencies that provide information in plain language often report having to spend less on enforcement and notice better overall compliance.
Plain language writing is especially critical for citizens whose mother tongue is different from the language the information is in and for those who must rely on translations. Because plain language writing limits the use of jargon and legalese, it is easier to translate and there is less chance of mistranslation. Obviously, in a bi-lingual country, not to mention in a city like Toronto, where banks, social service agencies, and other businesses often provide information in multiple languages, anything that makes translation easier should be welcomed.
The basic principles of plain language are straightforward: use short sentences and paragraphs; use common words rather than jargon; use terms consistently; organize information in a way that makes sense to readers; and use descriptive headings so that readers can find relevant information easily. Plain language writing is not rocket science, it simply requires care and commitment to helping readers understand information.
Some give the excuse that certain information, especially medical, financial, and legal information, is complicated and cannot be simplified. Such claims are based on the incorrect underlying assumption that plain language is “dumbing down” information.
Plain language is not about oversimplifying or about simply shortening things. It is about providing information in a way that people who are not specialists in the particular area can understand. Indeed, occasionally something written in plain language ends up a bit longer than the jargon-filled version, but that is usually only the case if additional background information or definitions are needed to make it understandable. The bottom line is people would rather read a longer document once and understand it than have to re-read a shorter document or get additional information or clarification.
Many people believe, as I do, that when someone uses jargon or legalese they are either too lazy to bother making it understandable and they do not care about the consumer of the information; they are not knowledgeable enough about the topic to make it understandable; or they have something to hide. As a result, I do all I can to avoid doing business with people who do not use plain language.
Individuals, society and, ultimately, democracy suffer when information is not written in language that is plain and understandable. International Plain Language Day is about putting plain language on the agenda in legislatures and boardrooms. The time has come for Canadians to embrace plain language and demand it of organizations in both the public and private sector.