Why use plain language?

Mbabane, Swaziland | 5 March 2014
Bill Snaddon

“Writing is like building a wall,” says Gwen Ansell, author of a handy little book Introduction to Journalism.

“The words are the bricks; the ideas are the cement which holds them together, she says. “If you write without focus or a plan, your story will fall apart.”

I have been writing this column for several weeks now. I have been rabbiting on about the benefits of plain language and rallying against the evils of jargon. It’s time to get serious – just for a week or two. It’s time consider how words and language impact upon noble pursuits like justice and fairness.

What’s more, while skimming through Ansell’s book on journalism something struck me. On the topic of plain language I am not sure if I have been altogether clear. How ironic, I thought – even hypocritical.

I fear I have got caught up in my own indulgence – telling stories about this or that. Harping on about snakes and beasts and friends who call me arrogant.

But, thankfully, Ansell has come to my rescue. She outlines the reasons behind the plain language movement and explains the benefits of using clearer language.

Ansell speaks of plain language in terms of justice and access to the law. She also talks about how plain language can help us overcome the modern problem of “information overload”.

The average daily newspaper in 2014, Ansell says, has as much information as a person living in a literate society 600 years ago would have received in a lifetime.

While this is wonderful — in the sense that growing access to information has a leveling and democratising effect (good jargon word, “democratising”) — it can also be paralysing. Combined with the ever-growing flow of information from the internet, this information overload is only going to increase.

With this in mind, Ansell says: “Plain English is not about writing ‘down’ to people who have difficulty reading. It is not the same as ‘simple English’ although it is certainly simpler for people to read. It doesn’t mean cheapening your ideas. It is, rather, a necessity for coping with the print overload most readers face each day.”

Ansell mentions a recent survey where American judges were asked about plain English. Eighty-six percent (86%) of the judges said they preferred plain language versions of their own documents and rulings.

Access to justice, as Ansell alludes to, is more than a slogan. It is more than a campaign. It is more than having your day in court. Access to justice can be as simple and practical as understanding the language used by lawyers or the rulings given by judges. This ultimately comes back to providing quality education so children who grow into adults can confidently understand the world around them.

In many countries laws have been re-written in “plain English”. In countries where English is not widely spoken laws have been re-written in the local language. These practical steps literally bring justice closer to the people.

Ansell lists several characteristics of plain language: it motivates busy people to read what you have written; it saves column space; it is faster to read and is easer to write; it is more precise and it empowers people by making complex issues more accessible.

A starting point might be an annual award for the organisation that uses the clearest language? The judging panel could be made up from a wide range of people – from Gogo in Nhlangano all the way down to the highest judge.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on March 5 2014.

#12_Why use plain langauge?_5 Mar 2014

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