What is plain language?
Plain language, defined.
Plain language is communication that brings the needs of the intended audience into harmony with those of the writer. It lets the writer get his message across, and it makes it easier for people to understand the information that is important to their lives.
According to the highly-regarded Centre for Plain Language, written material should be assessed by whether the reader can:
Language that is clear, or plain, for one group of people may be nonsense to another. We must consider the readers' cultural context, vocabulary, and expectations, and pay attention to document design and presentation as well as writing.
You know it when you see it.
Read my book:
Plain Language-Your consumer right, your responsibility
Ever wonder why you get reams of paperwork from every business you deal with, and it's all impossible to read? Do they even want you to read it? If so, why use archaic, ugly, and difficult-to-decipher language? Things are changing. The world is ready for clear-speaking, and customers are demanding it.
Facts about plain language
Q. What is plain language?
"Plain language" means presenting information to people in a way that makes sense to them. It's writing, or any language, that is clear and understandable, so that it’s easy for people to get — and use — information that is important to a person's life. Knowing your audience and their needs is the first step to plain, clear communication.
Q. What do you mean by information that is "important to a person's life"?
Think of anyplace you’ve seen legalese in your own life: contracts, regulations, waiver forms and releases, even the agreement you have to sign whenever you install software or sign up for something online.
Q. Why is plain language important?
People have a right to understand the documents that affect their lives. If we are to be held accountable for following laws, we should be able to understand those laws.
We are all party to contracts in our lives, with the phone company, the cable company, our cell phone company, landlords or mortgage companies, credit card companies, and more. We should be able to understand what those contracts require of us.
Q. Don't legal documents have to be written in... um... "legalese"?
There is no reason that legal language — language regulating legal rights and duties — has to be incomprehensible. It can be made plain enough for its intended audience.
Plain legal language is being written every day. Those who defend out-dated, poorly-written gibberish on the grounds of its complexity should be embarrassed.
Q. Why don't people write plain all the time?
A few folks just don't feel like they're getting their money's worth if a lawyer writes in a way they can understand. And a few lawyers may defend "legalese," saying that it is more precise than plain English, and so is less likely to be misinterpreted.
Some say say plain language is "talking down" to people or "dumbing down." I have learned that real experts have internalized and integrated their special knowledge to the point where they can talk of it in simple language—without any mystery. Anyone who can't do that, and complains about being asked to "dumb it down," is a pompous ass.
To say a judge's decision is final and can't be challenged&emdash;in plain language&emdash;is as precise as saying that a case is dismissed "with prejudice."
Q. What is the biggest barrier to the wide use of plain language?
Lawyers need to develop new writing habits. That is all. Once you have learned to write legalese and you have done it for years, it is ingrained in your thinking patterns.
I have been working at plain language for 30 years, and still, my first drafts often follow traditional legal phrasing and sentence structure, and I have to think twice about word choices.
So make that two things: develop new writing habits, and allow yourself enough time for each writing project to do it right.
Q. So all I have to do is write like I talk?
Actually, there's much more to it than that. Plain language is about knowing and respecting the needs of your audience, about clear writing, and about clean design.
Q. What do you need to know to write in plain English?
We have a process which takes into account the reader's interest, reading skill, and need for the information. It is an elaboration of the classical approach to writing effectively.
By the way, we now talk about plain language instead of plain English, because the ideas apply to communication in any language. Whatever the language, the aim is clarity and usefulness of the information.
In English, a number of shortcuts and guidelines have been developed to help the person who is not a writer by profession. Most of the US state laws requiring plain English set out some of these as requirements or measurements of plainness. In Canada, the laws tend to demand qualities like "clear" or "readable" and so on.
Q. Are there any risks of using plain language?
Depends who does it. A person who is not well-versed in the law, in general, should not write contracts. But many organizations think they can write their own plain language contracts. I do not advise it because there have been lawsuits resulting when an amateur's rewrite changes the substantive content. Lawyers better do it.
Q. How do visual aids figure into plain language legal writing?
Charts, graphs, maps. These are increasingly being used as schedules to laws, by-laws, and contracts. For any legal matter that a firm handles regularly, the firm should (have an expert) develop some graphical resources for client use. These reinforce the message in your text.
Also, you have written on your blog about the different learning styles of students. People have different information-processing styles, too. So the more variety you use in correspondence, the more likely you are to get the information across.
For example, if clients are missing important appointments, consider using three tactics in future: