Writers Write is a plain language writing resource. In this post, we have combined some of our basic plain language posts from 2012 in one easy-to-read page.
We started to write about plain language because it became law in South Africa.
We issued this press release: Communicate Clearly Or Face The Consequences
Then, to complement our own posts on the subject, we asked a legal expert, Michele van Eck, to write a series of short articles on the subject. These are her posts combined in one page.
1.) How The Law Defines Plain Language
Parliament has begun incorporating plain language requirements into legislation. Although compliance is not the only benefit for using plain language it is still an important consideration when communicating.
The National Credit Act, Companies Act and Consumer Protection Act have essentially the same requirements for plain language. They give some clarity on the expectations for the use of plain language in documents.
- A document is considered to be in plain language if an ordinary person with an average level of literacy skills and minimal experience in the field can understand the document.
- In essence you must consider your intended audience and communicate at your audience’s level of literacy and knowledge.
- The law goes further to say that a person must be able to understand the content, significance and importance of the document and only then is a document considered to be in plain language.
Businesses cannot afford to ignore the requirements of plain language and should take these requirements into consideration when communicating.
2.) 3 Ways To Write In Plain Language
Keep it short and simple
A document does not have more value because it is longer. Repeating information does not make it more important. Using jargon does not make the message more significant.
Consumers do not want lengthy documents. Rather keep the message short and simple. A shorter document has more impact. The audience tends to remember the message better.
Top three tips to keep a document short and simple:
- Avoid redundant expressions like ‘it is generally accepted that’ or ‘as it is well known’.
- Avoid repeating yourself in the document.
- Keep sentences short. On average a sentence should be nine words.
3.) 8 Factors That Influence Plain Language
If you write for business, you need to write in plain language.
The National Credit Act, Companies Act and Consumer Protection Act have some guidelines for Plain Language. These will determine if your document is in plain language.
- The content of the document. What does the document say?
- The level of comprehension of the document. What does your audience understand when reading the document?
- The consistency of information. Is the information in the document used in a uniform and consistent manner?
- The organisation and style of the document. Is the lay-out of the document easy to understand?
- The vocabulary used. Would your audience be able to understand the language you used in the document?
- The sentence structure. Are sentences short, concise and easy to read?
- Headings. Did you use headings to help guide your audience through the document?
- Illustrations and visual aids. Did you use any illustrations or diagrams to assist your audience in understanding the document?
4.) How To Lose An Election In Plain Language
In Scotland in 2007 the government changed hands because of unclear instructions on how to complete ballot papers.
Experts predicted trouble but politicians pressed on regardless. Many voters misread the instructions on the ballot papers. Some voters completed the ballot papers as they had in previous elections. A total of 147,000 ballot papers (4%) were spoilt and rejected. In some constituencies this resulted in a majority for some political parties.
The governing party was defeated by a single seat. The 4% of destroyed ballot papers could have led to a different result in the election.
Source: Oxford guide to plain English by Martin Cutts, Oxford University Press
5.) Why Plain Language Is Popular
- Plain language works.
- People prefer to understand what they’re reading.
- Communicating in language that is understandable shows respect to your reader.
There is a misconception that plain language is the process of “dumbing down” language. This is not the case. The message is not less effective because of plain language. In fact, plain language allows better understanding. Plain language is communicating with the reader in mind. It gets the message across quickly and effectively.
The effectiveness of your communication will increase if you:
- put yourself in the shoes of your reader; and
- assume the reader doesn’t know anything of the subject matter.
6.) How To Write Terms And Conditions In Plain Language
Do you understand the terms and conditions of your cell phone contract?
The clarity in legal documents can be improved by:
Using pronouns, for example: I, we, you.
Removing ‘doublets’, for example: “rules and regulations” or “accepts and agrees”.
Removing extra words.
Using shorter sentences.
Using vertical lists.
The following paragraph is from the terms and conditions of a South African telecommunication company. Is it in plain language?
Do you understand it?
“The subscriber accepts and agrees that these terms and conditions will become binding on it once on the Commencement Date, that is, once the Company has processed the Application Form and agreed to provide the Subscriber with the selected Mobile Service and the Selected Mobile Goods., which is known as the Commencement Date. In other words the agreement will commence on the Commencement Date.”
We made some changes using plain language principles.
Do you understand this version?
You agree to these terms and conditions. You will be bound to these terms and conditions from the Commencement Date. The Commencement Date will start when we have:
processed your application form; and
agreed to provide you with the goods and services you have selected.
7.) Are E-Toll Terms And Conditions Written In Plain Language?
Is This Written In Plain Language?
Some areas that create confusion in the document:
- There are 26 defined terms which makes the document difficult to understand.
- The use of acronyms like “ANPR” (automatic number plate recognition technology”, TCH (transaction clearing house), VLN (motor vehicle license plate number) and VPC (violations processing centre).
- The use of legalese.
- Using passive voice.
- Long and complicated sentences.
Applying plain language will improve the clarity of the document.
“5. As a registered user, the user will be billed and will be liable for toll transactions recorded according to the user’s VLN or its e-tag.”
In Plain Language: You must pay toll fees for your vehicle’s licence plate number or e-tag.
“6.6. The user understands and agrees that its liability to incur toll arises when its motor vehicle passes a tolling point. The amount of toll is calculated with reference to the tolling point and not with reference to kilometres travelled before the user reached the tolling point.”
In Plain Language: You must pay the toll fee. The toll fee is determined when you pass a tolling point. The kilometres you travel do not determine the toll fee.
8.) Plain Language Is A Democratic Right
The article, Around the world in plain words, explains that one of the failures in using plain language stems from government.
The continued use of garbled and unclear language in legislation creates uncertainty. Problems arise around issues of interpretation. The article says that the ability to understand what is being communicated, in particular from government to its citizens, is a democratic right.
In South Africa, legislation like the Consumer Protection Act has obliged businesses to use plain language when communicating with their customers.
“Communication remains at the heart of our changing society. Whether the message is being exchanged between two people, or numerous countries, it must start with language that is familiar to, and appropriate for the intended audience.”
Source: The European Policitcal Newspaper, “Around the world in plain words” by Marie Clair (Plain English Campaign) 8 April 2012.
9,) Plain Language – Know Your Audience
There is a misconception about plain language. People think it’s merely about replacing complicated words with simple ones.
It also includes the careful study of your intended audience, and moulding the communication to ensure that it is understood.
Here are four aspects to consider about your audience:
- Age: The average age of your audience will influence how easily your message is read and understood.
- Education: The education of your audience will influence the use of jargon, industry specific terminology and the level of language in your communication. For example, the language used between doctors will be very different to the language used between a doctor and a patient.
- Literacy Level: The average literacy level of your target audience will affect their ability to understand your message.
- Language: The manner in which you mould your communication will be influenced by whether English is your audience’s first, second or even third language.
10.) Why You Should Choose To Use Plain Language
Times have changed. There are ever increasing pressures on businesses to use plain language in communicating internally and externally.
Simply put, plain language is the use of language that is clear, effective and written without fuss. It is understood by the audience the first time it is read or heard. It is the most effective manner to communicate to ensure the message is not misunderstood.
For a business the use of plain language has the following benefits:
- The audience understands what is being communicated, which in turn reduces uncertainty and frustration.
- There are measurable savings on time and costs. It’s been shown that the use of plain language reduces helpdesk calls, queries and the duplication of work. The saving on time has a tangible cost benefit for a business.
- Compliance with the law and avoiding unnecessary legal costs. The Consumer Protection Act, National Credit Act and the Companies Act (to name a few) have made the use of plain language compulsory for businesses.
It’s time for businesses to re-look at how they communicate. They must take the use of plain language seriously. Plain language is here to stay.
We hope these posts have helped you to understand plain language a little better.
The series was written by Michele van Eck. Michelle has a BComm in business management and law, as well as an LLB and an LLM. With specialised qualifications in corporate and contractual law, Michele writes for De Rebus and has co-authored articles for TSAR (a journal for South African law).
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