“Plain words are eternally fresh and fit…capable of great power and dignity.”
Bryan Garner, plain language expert.
What is plain language?
Plain language in writing means that the reader can understand what they have read the first time they read it. This also means they can read it easily. In addition, plain language in writing means readers can use the information in the intended manner. If you do a search on plain language, you’ll find it pop up mostly in reference to legal documents and formal communication to members of the public, such as application forms or ‘how to’ information. But plain language has its place everywhere.
Why do we need to use plain language?
Plain language in writing is important for several reasons. Writing should be:
Writing is accessible when everyone reading it can understand it on their own and in a short period of time. If language or wording obscures meaning, the reader is deprived. This can infringe upon their right to information if the very information to which they have a right cannot be understood or if they are forced to pay a professional to explain it (and not everyone has that economic privilege).
Writing is readable when the words used are familiar to the readers. If jargon terms are depended upon, it creates a barrier between the author and the reader. This could chase the reader away or force him to find someone else or something else to meet his needs. This is important if the information serves to promote a service or sell a product. It is equally important if the information aims to teach skills or encourage positive behaviour change. If a reader must commit to terms, for example a contractual agreement, documents detailing such terms should also be readable.
Writing is credible when it conveys information effectively. The goal of communication is to make information reach readers. You have failed this if your writing is incomprehensible. Long words to sound fancy or knowledgeable are not always effective. A reader who understands what is written will be more likely to trust the author and believe the source of the information.
Writing is retainable when it is concise and clear. Short copy is more effective than long copy with wordy sentences and multiple paragraphs that never seem to reach a conclusion. In a digital age with information overload, people need to read quickly and understand content easily. A variety of digital platforms has also replaced hard copy, making brevity and clarity ever more important.
Plain language in South Africa
In South Africa, the South African National Credit Act 34 of 2005 was the first South African law to include a definition of plain language. I found it a little amusing and somewhat ironic to read as it does not exemplify the use of plain language in its wording. Even though the intention is honourable and positive, I wasn’t sure I understood it the first time I read it and I found it quite long-winded. I would definitely not be able to repeat to you what I’d read after reading it once. We’ll cover key points in a bit but first see if you agree (you can pass over to the next sub-heading if you hit a block):
The Act states that “a notice, document or visual representation (document) is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the document is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of credit or other goods and services could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the document without undue effort, having regard to the:
- context, comprehensiveness and consistency of the document;
- organisation, form and style of the document;
- vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the text; and
- use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding.”
Key points to remember when using plain language principles
Know your target audience:
If you know who your target audience is, you will choose appropriate words and organise the content of your writing so that it is relevant to readers.
Sentence length and structure:
Keep sentences a reasonable length. This, in fact, means short! Sentences exceeding between 20 and 24 words can become difficult to understand or remember. In the Act above, the sentence is 69 words before it reaches the sub-points. This is a good example of why long sentences are problematic if you want to reach your reader.
Use words that are familiar to your readers. This creates a more conversational tone in your writing and invites the reader in. Plain language does not mean dumbing down information and simple wording is not boring. It is effective.
Use the active voice in your writing. This means subject first and object last. The active voice is clear about who does what. In combination with familiar words and well-constructed sentences, the active voice makes writing accurate and logical.
“The finest language is made up of simple unimposing words.”