proving plain language works

There’s a marvellous piece about researching plain language. In their 2008 The research basis of plain language techniques: implications for establishing standards, Karen Schriver, Annetta Cheek and Melodee Mercer (sometimes writing in the first person singular) summarise research on plain language’s effectiveness. The article begins on page 26 of this edition of Clarity.

They begin by setting-up what I think is an artificial conflict between two ways of defining plain language.  One such definition is in terms of what it does – deliver meaning. The other is in terms of what it is – n% of verbs in the active voice, for example. People who seek a definition in either of those ways are “talking past” those who seek it in the other way and there is no chance of consensus, we are told. The author(s) writes: “before we proceed much further with our work, we need to agree on how we are going to define plain language.” However, she does proceed, and this doesn’t mean there’s a deadlock.

I’m personally allergic to outcomes-related definitions of plain language. They usually preach concision but then go on for half a paragraph, often tautologically. Many of them define plain language by using several synonyms for “plain”. Happily, some define it by saying that it communicates but, even then, we’re not into rocket-science. A good driver is someone who gets you to your destination on time and without actually killing you. Little is added to the state of the art by saying that things which fulfil their purpose fulfil their purpose.

Where definitions of plain language stop being motherhood-statements and start to get interesting is when they say that, for example, it avoids passives. Now you’re starting to know what this thing actually is, not just what it’s for. However, the more you ask for such detail, the more agitated, vague and defensive at least some plain language mavens and practitioners get.

By contrast, Schriver, Cheek and Mercer don’t duck this challenge. The useful sentence-level techniques are:

  • simple sentences
  • short clauses
  • not-long sentences
  • lists of seven items or fewer.

These aren’t just personal preferences but are supported by research which the authors cite. The real music to my ears is: “We must defer any attempt to construct technique-based standards until research gives us more answers. Even then, we will find that some of the techniques we hold most dear are not supported, and we will have to abandon them in constructing standards.”

Here’s how they conclude: “The Center [for Plain Language] believes that any international standard of plain language cannot be based on a set of specific [sic] linguistic techniques. Rather, it must be based on a standard for good process. We believe this process must include testing or some other procedure that demonstrates that a document works for its intended purpose.”

A plain language standard must, in fact, be based on linguistic techniques or it’s not a language-standard but just a series of platitudes about desirable outcomes. Plain language practitioners mustn’t be frightened of linguistics. Social-science research is what gives these authors’ excellent paper the authority which so much angry pontification on good writing lacks. Testing is indeed the key, though not of “a document”; it must be testing of the verbal practices which bring about those good communicational outcomes which rightly form just the first part of any definition of plain language.

Now that plain language is law in one country, we urgently need a single, large study which puts to the test all the theories about plain language. The results should be used to produce a codicil to the 2010 plain writing act, couched in terms that academic linguists can look at without blenching.  Software can be written to implement those rules. Children can be taught plain language in schools and, like their science-curriculum, it’ll be based on fact.

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when clarifying is accompanied by reducing content

I always like a good before-and-after comparison and here‘s one from the US federal plain language group. While the original text isn’t an easy read, the revised version isn’t just shorter. A good bit of (albeit obscure) content is missing. The editors and their client may have agreed to this, but an editor on her or his own could really annoy the client by excising such factual material. If I received a letter consisting of just the second text, I’d think it perfunctory and would fear that they weren’t taking my case seriously.

It should go without saying that, if you ask for something to be looked at, the agency concerned will do so and get back to you. The shortened letter makes no acknowledgement of the content of the original enquiry, nor does it give any idea of how long the investigation will take. At least the original, longer text gives you some idea of what’s going to happen. I don’t think this is a good advertisement for plain language but, rather, plays into its critics’ hands who assert that editors don’t enhance text but deface it.

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Mr Chinua Asuzu of the Assizes law-practice, Lagos, Nigeria, writes wittily about legal writing. He says trainee-lawyers should be taught to write. He cites Mylward v Welden in 1596 where a litigant was punished for submitting 120 pages of material which the judge said could have fitted on to 16. He has a view on structure: “jump right into the topic after your abstract, albeit in prefatory fashion, from the very first line”, though I’m not sure what the abstract should do. In contrast, he admiringly quotes Lord Denning: “I start my judgment, as it were, with a prologue” which doesn’t seem to plunge in medias res.

Denning’s short sentences are praised and here are some: “Broadchalke is one of the most pleasing villages in England. Old Herbert Bundy, the defendant, was a farmer there. His home was a Yew Tree Farm. It went back for 300 years. His family had been there for generations. It was his only asset.” I’m not sure I could take a whole document written like that. There’s also the hackneyed stuff here which tells us little: “Be clear and concise in your writing. Avoid clichés and stereotypes.” I fear these mantras achieve nothing and just make the cause of clarity seem obscure!

There’s also the usual stuff about avoiding passives, about which I desperately seek empirical evidence. Is “Mary is liked by John” really so hideously obscure when compared with “John likes Mary” and it is worth the effort rewriting it? Tautologically, he says: “Avoid redundancy, superfluity, and tautology, like: ‘cease and desist’,” but do we know for certain that such repetition mightn’t actually help to get a point across?

That said, for a piece that’s potentially yet another part of the tradition of complaint, it’s charmingly written. If I were a judge, though, I’d ask my learned friend to provide evidence of his assertions.

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seeking proof of clarity’s usefulness

A kind colleague on LinkedIn’s plain language forum tells me about And the winner is: principles of cognitive science resolve the plain language debate (2011) by Julie Baker of Suffolk University, Massachusetts.

The author describes the conflict over plain language and legal jargon, and says cognitive psychology can shed light on the matter. She confirms my view: “While [plain language in legal writing] has gone by many names and inspired much debate, its evolution has been entirely theoretical and anecdotal; scholarly research has not offered any direct, scientific support for its use.” Also: “proponents of plain language have based their reasoning almost exclusively on anecdotal and behavioral research.”

When introducing cognitive psychology, the author describes the two types of information-processing system and I admit to not understanding her explanation of the associative and analytic systems. Here’s a sample: “By actively considering multiple options, explanations and deviations, [the analytic] system attempts to describe the world through logical analysis.”

Something called “new rhetoric” is described as seeing “legal writing [as] a conversation between the writer and the reader,” yet, as writing, it’s customarily a monologue. She says: “new rhetoric [was] not rooted in scientific evidence”. The author also states: “Writers employing plain language plan, design, and organize their documents in an overall effort [sic] to achieve clear communication with the reader,” yet this is little more than saying (verbosely) that plain language is plain.

(When we say “plain language”, the “plain” doesn’t mean “dull and featureless” but something like “easily understandable”.)

We’re told: “Font, color, spacing, vocabulary, grammar, and myriad other characteristics of writing greatly shape how readers comprehend material.” Well, yes; but how? We’re repeatedly told that fluency aids comprehension. She even writes about “more fluent words”. However, comprehensibility is surely a defining characteristic of fluency. If it ain’t fluent, you won’t get it.

Plain language, we are told, has “straightforward sentences and simple words” and that’s also like saying plain language is plain. We get hardly any more detail of what it actually is. It’s like someone discovering a new species of duck and writing an article which doesn’t tell you what colour its beak is or how it quacks.

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policy matters

A kind interlocutor on Lingforum seemed justifiably irritated by my reluctance to say what I thought ought to happen about the attempts to write plain language into law. I was being coy because I’d rather know initially what others think, especially experts such as campaigners, lawyers and linguists. However, this subject obviously interests me and it would be impossible not to have opinions on it.

It seems that good English is a good idea because it helps us know what’s happening in the world. This is especially useful if we need the help of the state to do something or if the state requires something of us. Commercial communications are also good if they’re comprehensible, and that benefits business as well as customers. So my first piece of uncontentious opinion is that this plain or clear or good language is a desirable end.

I’ve been researching this subject off and on for around a decade and, when I recently revisited it, I found that the 2010 plain writing act had changed the landscape. While I like good English, I wonder, though, if the law isn’t too blunt an instrument to achieve it in society. This is where it’d be good to hear from lawyers, ethicists and philosophers.

Many agree with my liking for good English but there’s a lack of a generally-agreed definition of it. I don’t think it’s enough to assume that we’re all talking about the same thing, not least because the published style-guides conflict on what clear language is. There therefore needs to be comprehensive and robust testing of the various theories of clarity, such as the preference for active verbs. If I write “You must complete the form” will I really be measurably better understood than if I write “The form must be completed by you”? Also, do those sentences actually mean the same?

Assuming that a corpus of research can be assembled on what makes good English good, the resulting rules could comprise the definitive style-guide. To give this extra gravitas, it could be published as an international standard. Software could be written to implement it and organisations could certify that their publications met the standard. Also, schools and colleges could teach it to students and it could be part of foreign language-teaching.

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a tested formula for clarity

Transcend of Davis, California, tested forms used by courts in both original and plain formats. They found ”a marked and statistically significant improvement in reader comprehension when court forms [were] treated for plain language.” The firm’s “Transcend Readability Index” implements:

  • An appropriate reading grade level
  • Language that is largely familiar to the reader or adequately explained
  • Direct address
  • Active voice
  • Visual features that make the text highly readable
  • Graphics to support the key message of the text
  • Intuitive ordering and integration of information
  • Consideration of end-user comments from field testing.
So maybe this is the formula! There are some aspects which the index probably defines further, such as:
  • appropriateness of reading-grade
  • familiarity of language
  • adequacy of explanation
  • intuitiveness of ordering
  • integratedness of information.
Transcend has 99% confidence in its results. When asked what a particular document was for, fewer than a quarter of respondents could discern the original version’s role while more than two thirds understood the revised one’s purpose.

My thanks to Cheryl Stephens of Vancouver.

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  • many people will assent to the idea of plain language without necessarily being able to describe the principles behind it
  • a lot of writing and speaking about clarity isn’t based on evidence but on assumptions about what is clear
  • a lot of material about clarity is expressed obscurely and/or in terms which make it hard for writers to implement
  • some people and organisations operating in this field are businesses selling editing-services and they consequently regard the principles of clarity as trade-secrets
  • academia has avoided this area because the subject connotes prescriptivism
  • if clarity is to be given the force of law, there’s a risk that people will be punished for breaking rules which lack an empirical basis
  • many self-professed style-experts lack the training to describe language scientifically
  • principles of clarity could usefully be tested to see if they delivered what they were supposed to provide
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herbal verbal remedies

The plain language movement claims to help people understand things by encouraging verbal clarity, and maybe it does. At least some style-guides don’t say why they recommend some expressions in preference to others. For example, some guides forbid passives and nominalisations.

Alternative medicine has been criticised for not having been tested to see if it works. The same criticism should apply to writing-techniques which haven’t been proven to make meanings clearer.

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off the menu

ABC Copywriting points out how wording on an hotel-menu combined salesy hype with an officious disclaimer. We can see that, and it’s very plain to the stylistician. I’ve asked whether there’s evidence that customers notice and, if so, behave differently as a result.

Stylistic appraisal and literary criticism doubtless have their own merit as academic pursuits. Businesspeople such as hotel-owners will want to know if it’s worth the time, money or effort to bother with style.

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A regulator says that mortage-contracts are opaque.

The authority’s Toby Parker writes to me: “[W]e do ask that firms communicate to their customers in a way that is clear, fair and not misleading. In fact this is enshrined in one of the FSA’s principles of business – in this case Principle 7, which reads: ’A firm must pay due regard to the information needs of its clients, and communicate information to them in a way which is clear, fair and not misleading.’”

I asked Mr Parker if they had a standard and he replied: “There’s no style guide as such but, as per Principle 7, communications have to be clear, fair and not misleading. That is key.” He refers me to the authority’s banking-code which says: “A firm must take reasonable steps to ensure that a communication or a financial promotion is fair, clear and not misleading.”

The authority’s guidance says: “if a court deemed that a term was not written in plain and intelligible language, under the Regulations the court could interpret it in favour of the consumer.” We can thus have courts deciding on what is plain language.

  • South African weather-service to be immune from prosecution for making mistakes. Is the UK Met Office immune? The BBC’s forecast-accuracy test (which probably won’t look at comprehension) is described here. Meanwhile, the forecasters get bonuses.
  • America’s clarity regime includes writing summaries of documents. Nothing here, though, about the clarity of the text itself.
  • Englishman in America campaigns against “awesome”. I’m sure he’ll get a lot of support, at least from people in Britain. However, can the campaign be explained in any other way than that its supporters find the word irritating? The word “the” is used a lot, so being used frequently shouldn’t be enough to get something banned. Could the word’s opponents be making a judgement about the type of people who say “awesome” and, if so, aren’t they being judgemental or something else ending in -ist? Would people join a campaign against using “wicked” in its modern sense, and could that be interpreted by the people who use that word as a grave slur?
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