Plain English & Plain Langauge, Writing & business

Are you using plain language as an excuse?

When is plain language not plain language?

Believe it or not, an author might use the idea of plain language or plain English as a form of defence. Specifically, the author might say “I’ve written this in plain language – it’s not my fault you can’t understand the ‘plain language’ used in this document, it’s your fault!”

When might someone say this? Well, imagine the following hypothetical context:

A government body writes an important document that aims to inform the public of some new rules to keep them safe. However, the document is written in a difficult way and the public complains because the guidance is not clear. What should the government body do?

  1. Issue a revised notice?
  2. Issue a secondary document to explain what the first one meant?
  3. Let the media try and work it out and explain it.
  4. Blame the public for not understanding the original document and say “it’s written in plain language”.

1) and 2) are risky as they are admissions of fault – what the author is saying is “I didn’t explain it well enough the first time, let me try again.” However, would a hypothetical government body be brave enough to do that?

You cannot stop 3) i.e. the media informing the masses. But, this might lead to the media misunderstanding or (intentionally or unintentionally) misinterpreting the document. But, this is easy for the government body to defend – the media are misreporting the news, that’s not what I said – fake news!

Without doubt, the easiest option is 4). By simply saying “it’s written in plain language,” the government body can put the blame on the public for not understanding the document.

This might solve the short term problem, but it leads to longer-term bigger problems; namely, a lack of trust in the government. Now, of course, I’ve framed this in the worst possible light – the government body blaming the public for their inability to understand ‘plain language’. I don’t really think a government body (however tempted it might be) will blame the public for not understanding English. However, a government body might use the excuse “it’s in plain language” for other reasons i.e. the relevant government spokesman:

  1. is unable to explain something themselves – I’m calling this the ‘I’ve been dropped in at the deep end’ reaction, or
  2. is not prepared for the public’s reaction – I’m calling this the ‘go away and leave me alone’ reaction.

It is not enough just to say it is written in ‘plain language’

So, it’s clear that saying, “it’s in plain language” might be an act of defence. Unfortunately, that act of defence does not help the intended audience who need to rely on that document. Therefore, I naturally get suspicious when I see someone saying “it’s in plain language.” Indeed, when I do see this, the first thing to do is to actually find the source document and find out if it is actually written in plain language.

In this case, I saw an article that, in Ohio, a ‘stay-at-home’ order had been issued as a result of coronavirus. Further, wlwt.com reports (you might need to use a VPN to get access to this story) that:

“Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted tried to eliminate any confusion about the state’s shelter-in-place order Wednesday.

He encouraged anyone who is puzzled by it to simply read the order which is a public document online.

“It’s written in plain language,” Husted said.”

Let’s investigate if this is actually the case or is the Lt. Governor looking to use one of the defences mentioned above?

The source document is the Ohio’s Department of Health Director’s Stay At Home Order. You can download it directly from the source here or from me here.

Section 1 “Stay at home or place of residence” says:

“With exceptions as outlined below, all individuals currently living within the State of Ohio are ordered to stay at home or at their place of residence except as allowed in this Order. To the extent individuals are using shared or outdoor spaces when outside their residence, they must at all times and as much as reasonably possible, maintain social distancing of at least six feet from any other person, with the exception of family or household members, consistent with the Social Distancing Requirements set forth in this Order. All persons may leave their homes or place of residence only for Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Functions, or to participate in Essential Businesses and Operations, all as defined below.”

An initial analysis tells us that this is not plain language. Why?

  • It is not easy to read at first or even second reading.
  • It is difficult to pinpoint the main message(s).
  • The passage uses 117 words and only 3 sentences.
  • There are very few verbs.
  • There is very little document design – just a block of text.
  • There are lots of clauses that interrupt sentences.
  • There is a reference to other parts of the document without saying exactly where they are i.e. making the reader hunt for that information.

What might a plain language redraft look like?

So, what might this passage look like if: a) we aimed to write in real plain language, and b) we wanted to resolve as many as the 7 points as possible from those that I highlighted above. Well, a possible redraft might look like this:

All individuals currently living within the State of Ohio are ordered to stay at home or at their place of residence except for the reasons in the table ‘when can I leave my home?’ below.

If you are in shared or outdoor spaces, you must keep at least 6 feet away from any other person. Where it is not possible to keep 6 feet away, keep as far away as possible. Please also follow the guidance under Section 15: ‘Social Distancing Requirements’. The 6-feet rule does not apply to family members you live with or other household members.

When can I leave my home?

You may leave your homes or place of residence only for:

Essential ActivitiesPlease go to section 5
Essential Governmental FunctionsPlease go to section 10
Essential Businesses and OperationsPlease go to section 12

***

I think we can agree that this redraft is a lot more reader-friendly. But, even in this process, we have encountered a problem: how do we redraft the ambiguous original text “maintain social distancing of at least six feet from any other person, with the exception of family or household members”?

The question this asks is: does the six-feet exception apply to family members you do not live with i.e. an aunt, uncle, or cousin? If we understand the original text literally, this is allowed. But this surely can’t be what the author intended.

So how should we redraft this? The only option here is to contact the Ohio Department of Health and ask for clarification. In my redraft, you can see that I adopted the common sense understanding that the exception to the rule only affects members of the family you live with – but I could be wrong.

Plain language lessons to learn

There are a few lessons to take away:

  • plain language is possible – you need to know what plain language is, and practice drafting it.
  • everything can be redrafted into plain language.
  • plain language is easy to understand compared to the original text which was redrafted – ask the public (the intended audience) which one they prefer.
  • the process of redrafting into plain language highlights potential ambiguity which lies hidden in impenetrable texts.

Also:

  • think of how much of a reader’s time could be saved by having a message that is written in plain language.
  • think of how much of a reader’s trust would be gained by having a message which is easy to understand and can be acted upon.
  • think of how, by writing in plain language, you can avoid potential errors in your writing.

The document (I believe) was prepared in a hurry. This meant that the authors took the easy option of writing the stay-at-home order using the same bad writing habits learnt over time. The authors did not take the harder option of thinking about how to present the message in an easy way, or thinking about the document’s intended audience.

Consequently, the document probably was too difficult for the Lt. Governor to read quickly and to explain correctly under pressure. Therefore, it’s probably the reason why the Lt. Governor was forced to blame the public he hoped to reassure and simply say, “it’s written in plain language.”

***

If you want to learn what plain language is and how you can use plain language in your legal or business writing, please think about taking part in my online course.

 

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