Before we get into what “plain language” is deemed to include by today’s experts on the subject, let’s remind ourselves how it began.
No doubt Rudolf Flesch’s “How to write plain English” (1979) was an important influence in providing specific formulas intended to define and encourage the use of plain language. Both the average number of words in a sentence and the average number of syllables in a word were used to rate the “readability” of a document. But such tools, used alone, were soon seen to have their limitations.
A major flaw was the chance that the author might fail to account for the level of professional education of the audience, and the required technical sophistication of the content. These concerns led to the criticism of readability formulas as fostering “kindergarten language” or a “kind of baby-talk.”
The legal profession has long been the target of criticism of its “legalese,” which it defends on the basis of consistency, specificity, and avoidance of unnecessary argument and misinterpretation. Nevertheless, a movement within the profession suggests that lawyers should write in a plainer style. “Plain Language” is a regular feature of the Michigan Bar Journal, edited by Joseph Kimble, a law professor for the State Bar’s Plain English Committee.
In a recent article, Kimble defends the choice of words as the first consideration in plain language, and provides a lengthy list of questionable words found in legal writings that he suggests might be replaced with a more direct or simpler version. Here are just a few: apprise, cognizant, comprise, contiguous, disseminate, effectuate, elucidate, evince, inception, pursuant to, transpire.
Yet he warns that replacing any word may depend not just on simplicity, but on precision. “By all means use the longer, less familiar word if you think it’s more precise or accurate,” he notes.
Choosing the optimum words and keeping sentences short is just the beginning. Lengthy paragraphs and excessively wide lines in the published work can turn readers off. To attract and retain reader attention, many professional writers favor a printed format in which paragraphs contain about twelve lines and average about twelve words per line (Kimble suggests using between 50 and 70 characters per line). Most writing pros recommend a text size of at least 10 to 12-point type. Universal agreement on serif vs. sans-serif typeface seems lacking, although some, like Kimble, favor a “readable” serif.
Enter the Federal Government
The Plain Editing Act of 2010 was enacted by the U.S. Congress “to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly . . .” Each agency was instructed to use plain writing in every newly issued or substantially revised document, train its employees to do so, and maintain a plain writing section on its website to inform the public of its compliance and seek feedback on its implementation.
A before and after example was provided:
“The amount of expenses reimbursed to a claimant under this subpart shall be reduced by any amount that the claimant receives from a collateral source. In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this subpart for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this subpart.”
“If you get a payment from a collateral source, we will reduce our payment by the amount you get. If you get payments from us and from a collateral source for the same expenses, you must pay back the amount we paid you.”
More than mere words
Today’s proponents of plain language have added document format and organization to their concerns. Many see it as an inseparable part of the plain language movement. Some note that a writing project should not begin without first considering these organizational elements that determine the finished document’s format:
- The intended audience (lay or professional, level of education, and experience).
- Introductory background requirements.
- Illustrations (necessary vs. optional; number, size, and location in text; color and/or black and white).
- References (within text or separate listing).
Good News and Bad
Although major attention has been directed to the use of plain language in government communications and, to a lesser extent, the legal profession, it has not yet been widely embraced by the engineering profession. This may be, in part, because, as engineers, we write principally for our colleagues, rather than for the ultimate users of our developments or the general public.
Some disappointment also exists in the relatively sparse formal followup re the implementation of the plain language process by many government agencies, as well as shortfalls in measuring its acceptance by its ultimate user-readers.
An issue I will leave for another time is the difficulty in applying plain writing and uniform formatting procedures to online publications.
Your inputs are welcome.
- Kimble, J., “The Elements of Plain Language,” The Michigan Bar Journal, https://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/articles/elements-of-plain-language/ retrieved Jan. 10, 2018
- Kimble, J., “Plain Words (Part One),” The Michigan Bar Journal, 2001.
- Kimble, J., “Plain Words (Part Two),” The Michigan Bar Journal, 2001.
- Mazur, B., “Revisiting Plain Language,” Technical Communication, 47, No. 2, May 2000.
- https://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/articles/revisiting-plain-language/ retrieved Jan. 9, 2018
- Aspray, M., Plain Language for Lawyers, Federation Press, Sydney, Australia, 1991.
- Flesch, R., How to Write Plain English, Harper & Row, 1979.
- Steinberg, E. (Ed.), Plain Language: Principles and Practice, Wayne State University Press, 1991.
- Kimble, J., Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language, Carolina Academy Press, 2006.
- Kimble, J., Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, Carolina Academy Press, 2012.
- Kimble, J., Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works, Morgan Kaufmann, 2012.
- Riley, K., K.S. Campbell, A. Manning, F. Parker, Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology Business and the Social Sciences, Parlay Press, 2011.
- Special Issue on Plain Language, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Dec. 2017.
- Campbell, K. S., N. Amare, E. Kane, A. Manning, J. S. Naidoo, “Plain Style Preferences of U.S. Professionals” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 2017.
- Matveeva, N., M. Moosally, R. Willerton, “Plain Language in the Twenty-First Century” (introduction to the Special Issue on Plain Language, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication), Dec. 2017.
- Schriver, K. A., “Plain Language in the U.S. Gains Momentum: 1940-2015,” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Dec. 2017.
- King, C. L., “Reverse Outlining: A Method for Effective Revision of Document Structure,” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Sep. 2012.
- Christiansen, D., “Engineers Can’t Write? Sez Who?,” The Best of Backscatter, Vol. 1, IEEE-USA, 2008.
- Christiansen, D., “Writing Not Badly,” The Best of Backscatter, Vol. 3, IEEE-USA, 2011.
Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.