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.