43. PLAIN LANGUAGE: MOLLYCODDLING OR MORAL COPYWRITING?
What comes to your mind when you picture 'plain language'? Dumbed down baby speak in an insult to the reader's intelligence? Or straightforward expression using only as many words as are necessary? With the term itself subject to disagreement, it's no surprise that it provokes fierce debate when implemented as a policy requirement.
Plain language police
One of the more recent examples of such controversy arose last year in New Zealand, where the Plain Language Act made it mandatory for officials to use easily understood English when communicating with the public. As MP Rachel Boyack put it, "people living in New Zealand have a right to understand what the government is asking them to do and what their rights are," particularly people with disabilities, people with lower levels of education and second-language speakers. In the view of those supporting the bill, 'plain language' means transparent, concise text that allows readers to make informed decisions.
Given that plain language advocates also claim that the bill will save money and government time, its opponents argue that it will create new layers of bureaucracy with the opposite result - although, perhaps unsurprisingly, they were decidedly un-plain in how they envisioned this. "Plain language police! That's what they'll become. The plain language police, who will be having their clipboards and their little white coats, running around, looking over the shoulders of all the public servants, checking ... Are they writing with words of less than one syllable?" asked MP Simeon Brown.
The cuttlefish approach
Brown may have deliberately been evoking the Thought Police of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, who enforce a controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual's ability to think and articulate. If so, it might surprise him to learn that Orwell was a strong proponent of plain language and advocated for it in the 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."
As the title suggests, Orwell directly connected un-plain language with political euphemism and, having covered the same topic in our October blog post, we can add a few of his terms to our list: 'pacification' for aerial bombing, 'elimination of unreliable elements' for mass imprisonment and 'rectification of frontiers' for genocide. While I do think that some of Orwell's arguments elsewhere in the essay verge too close to language purism, his interpretation of plain language refutes the idea that it exists to coddle the reader; quite the opposite, as the bluntness of the non-euphemistic terms confronts them with reality and challenges them on their acceptance of such actions.
A clear case
Of course, I am biased in my views because I've been a beneficiary of plain language policy: in the Netherlands, government communication with the public must be at a B1 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, very broadly equivalent to the level of a sixteen-year-old native speaker. I've also seen the issue of convoluted language up close as a copywriter. While almost all clients want their research summarised as clearly as possible to reach a wide audience, I encountered one who doubled the length of almost every sentence I'd written without adding new content. As the subject matter related to an industry under increased scrutiny in recent years, I couldn't help but view the edits in terms of Orwell's cuttlefish analogy.
In my opinion, the case for plain language - understood to be clear, accurate text - ought to already be closed. But don't take my word for it: in a number of empirical studies, comprehension improved by anywhere from 10-15% to over 100% when texts were rewritten into plain English. With greater understanding come fewer mistakes in interpreting a text, meaning less time and money spent on questions and complaints. It may well be harder to write such a text, given that arguments and structure must be completely sound without the option to mislead, but relishing the challenge is part of this line of work. For me, it really is as plain and simple as that.