What is Plain Language?
Plain language is the term that has been adopted to refer to writing that has been drafted so that the intended audience can easily read it. They should be able to find the information they need, understand it, and use it. While the focus of much of the discussion about plain language focuses on written material, the main elements and principles of plain language apply to most forms of communication.
Plain process and plain forms are spin-off’s from the focus on plain language.
Elements of plain language
Early PLE efforts to use plain language
One of the first practices adopted in PLE was the use of plain language in preparing written material. The field of plain language writing was itself new so references were few. One of the most prominent was Rudolf Flesh’s The Art of Readable Writing. Although written in 1949, it is still an indispensable tool for anyone who takes their writing seriously. It also forms the basis of the Flesch readability scale used in Microsoft Office and WordPress among other programs.
The job of writing PLE materials in plain language is further complicated by the nature of legal language itself. Simple rules, like using one-syllable words did not help with technical terms, like ‘tort’. Moreover, PLE organizations experienced push-back from lawyers who insisted that the technical language they used was necessary to understanding the law. This resistence has abated considerably since then. Flesch’s How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers and Richard Wydick’s Plain Language for Lawyers came on stream in 1979 and were welcome resources.
By the 1990s, plain language had entered the legal mainstream. The Canadian Law Information Centre offered the workshop “Making Your Message Clear”. The Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Bankers’ Association jointly produced The Decline and Fall of Gobbledygook: Report on Plain Language Documentation. In 1991, Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada published Plain Language Clear and Simple, still an excellent resource that now has a companion training guide.
Contemporary plain language references
Over the years, the field has developed to include sophisticated understandings of how to draft legislation, legal documents, and, of course, PLE materials. Governments have instituted plain language policies and have produced guidelines and training resources. There is a plain language journal, online communities, and international associations. If you want to learn more, the resources listed on the Tips and Tools side bar are good places to start.
Who’s Who in Plain language
Early pioneers in this work include Christine Mowatt, Cheryl Stevens, Phil Knight, and Penny Goldsmith. Early plain language agencies include the The Plain Language Centre, Canadian Legal Information Centre and the Plain Language Institute of British Columbia.
Resources of Interest: Plain language
Plain language periodicals:
- The Clarity Journal: http://www.clarity-international.net/clarity-journal/the-clarity-journal/
Plain language online communities:
- LinkedIn: Plain Language Association International group
- Twitter: PLELearningExchange
Plain language associations:
- Plain Language Association International (PLAIN): http://plainlanguagenetwork.org/
- Clarity: http://www.clarity-international.net/
Documents of Interest: Plain language
Baldwin, R. (1990). Clear Writing and Literacy. Toronto: Ontario Literacy Coalition.
Council of Administrative Tribunals. Literacy and access to administrative justice in Canada: A Guide for the Promotion of Plain Language. Available at http://www.ccat-ctac.org/CMFiles/Publication/Literacyandjustice.pdf
Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Bankers’ Association Joint Committee Report (1990). The Decline and Fall of Gobbledygoop: Report on Plain Language Documentation. Ottawa: Canadian Bar Association.
Flesch, R. (1949) The Art of Readable Writing. (New York: Collier) available free at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.275839.
Garner, B. (1991). The Elements of Legal Style. (New York: Oxford University Press.)
Goldsmith, P. (1986). Writing on Our Side. (Vancouver: Progressive Literacy Group.)
Mowat, C. (2015) A Plain Language Handbook for Legal Writers second edition (Toronto:Thomson Reuters)
Plain Language Institute of British Columbia. (199-). Free Your Words: A quick and easy guide to clear legal writing. Vancouver: Plain Language Institute of British Columbia.
Plain Language Institute of British Columbia (199-) Plain Language at City Hall. Vancouver: Plain Language Institute of British Columbia.
Plain Language Institute of British Columbia (n.d.) A Plain Language Report series: Volume I: So people can understand; Volume II: Legislating the use of plain language; Volume III: Legislating Plain Language Background Data. Vancouver: Plain Language Institute British Columbia.
Plain Language Institute of British Columbia (1992). Proceedings: Just Language Conference 1992. Vancouver: Plain Language Institute of British Columbia.
Plain Language Institute of British Columbia (1993). Critical Opinions: The Public’s View of Legal Documents. Vancouver: Plain Language Institute of British Columbia.
Stephens, C. (2008). Plain Language Legal Writing. Vancouver: Plan Language Wizardry Books. Available at http://www.plainlanguage.com/
Wydick, R. Plain Language for Lawyers