We asked PEG members with a particular interest in Plain Language – and a long commitment as PEG members – their thoughts on Plain Language. This blog post is a collaborative effort of several PEG members: it takes us back and brings us forward as we continue to celebrate 30 years.
2010: Looking back at PEG’s stance on Plain Language
On 30 July 2010, PEG hosted a workshop in Cape Town on Plain Language. Say it in plain English was the title of the media article in a local newspaper that formed part of the advertising for the event. At the time, PEG was committed to ensuring that the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act of 2009 were met.
Within a year, members in Gauteng were treated to a similar workshop. Putting Plain Language principles into practice, under the expert guidance of Eleanor Cornelius, proved a little more challenging than expected. As John Linnegar noted then, even defining the concept was not always straightforward.
In May 2015, Isabelle Delvare presented ‘A Participative and Skills-building Workshop on Plain Language’ to PEG members in Gauteng (a workshop that had previously been presented at the invitation of Oxford University Press to their publishers and editors in Gauteng – a clear sign that they understood the importance of clear writing!). She spoke about Plain Language principles and how they could be used in various fields, including medicine and the law. In November of that same year, Karin Pampallis presented a workshop dealing specifically with Plain Language in academic editing, and asking ‘How far can you go?’ when editing that kind of writing.
2019: Moving forward
In 2019, PEG’s Gauteng branch offered its members an introduction to the basics of Plain Language, which was followed by a deep dive several months later. Karin Pampallis presented the basics of Plain Language and Irene Stotko organised a full-day workshop with a range of speakers on how Plain Language could be – and was – being used in various fields. A sample of topics shows the interest and depth of that deep dive: ‘Legal design and the role of artificial intelligence in Plain Language’; ‘Using Plain Language to help more South Africans save for their retirement’; ‘Plain Language design and the value of user testing in financial services’.
2023 and beyond
PEG hosts webinars on Plain Language at least annually, and understanding the principles of Plain Language remains an essential part of our continuing professional development. Martin Cutts reminds us that as far back as 1913, a Cambridge University professor encouraged the use of writing in a clear style without inflated language. More than a hundred years on, it seems we still need to learn this essential skill. Let’s hear what PEG’s proponents of Plain Language have to say:
PEG’s Plain Language proponents
Your involvement and interest in Plain Language has a long history. Can you share with us what your interest is and what significant changes you have seen?
I enjoy simplifying complex information and recruiting more members for Plain Language Association International (PLAIN)! We have 38 members in South Africa, including the group memberships of Alexander Forbes and Nedbank. South Africa ranks fourth in PLAIN after Canada, the USA and Australia.
The scope of Plain Language has increased significantly over the years. We have shifted from text to context, from plain English to Plain Language, and from readability scores to user experience and testing.
Tell us about the ISO Plain Language Standard and what that means for Plain Language.
We will have a universal standard for creating clear communication and assessing what is ‘plain’. The new ISO Plain Language Standard (to be released in June 2023) provides a set of guidelines and strategies to make communication easier to read, understand and use. It is a voluntary standard based on empirical data. Anyone who wants to improve written communication can buy it and start applying it.
This first part of the standard describes governing principles and guidelines that will work in most languages and cultures. Representatives from 25 countries speaking 19 languages helped to create the standard. Later parts of the standard will probably focus on particular languages and documents.
You are on the committee organising the first conference on Plain Language in South America. What makes this conference unique?
PLAIN has members from 40 countries, but it’s the first time we will have a PLAIN conference in Latin America and in a Spanish-speaking country. Argentina has 42 million Spanish speakers – the third largest number of native speakers after Mexico and Colombia. The conference theme is ‘Connecting Cultures: Clear Communication to Build Bridges’.
What underlies your interest in Plain Language?
One of the main tasks in my work as an editor over the past three decades and more is to help people understand one another – whether that be a piece on cookery or a doctoral thesis. And, as I said in one of my workshops on Plain Language, the aim of any piece of writing is to communicate. As editors, we can help to make that happen in the best possible way.
What are the challenges facing Plain Language (and its use), if any?
Many people think that using Plain Language is equivalent to ‘dumbing down’ a piece of writing or being patronising to the reader. Those who hold this opinion believe that applying Plain Language principles results in imprecise and juvenile writing. This is absolutely not the case, and the only way to change the minds of such people is to keep on applying Plain Language correctly and explaining why it is important.
What do you hope to see happen in written communication that confirms the importance of and commitment to using Plain Language principles?
By continuing to champion the use of Plain Language and training editors and clients in its application, we can contribute to greater clarity of writing and thus greater understanding in the fields in which we work.
What underlies your interest in Plain Language?
An innate dislike of puffery, pomposity and obfuscating text that is author-centred and ignores the needs of its readers by making words and meanings inaccessible at first reading. I have found this to be a particular problem in legal texts that the layperson is supposed to understand. It is equally problematic in academic texts, where unplain language is misguidedly intended to impress and indicate a voice of authority.
What changes have you seen since the workshop in 2010 hosted by PEG?
Almost none! Except that the legal documents of retail chains (such as application forms for shopper cards and cellphone contracts) have had to be rewritten in Plain Language to fulfil the requirements of the Consumer Protection Act. But I see almost no attempts by academic writers worldwide to write more plainly, so I still have my work cut out as a text editor! That astounds me, because it is so simple to apply a few principles to make texts of any kind accessible to readers.
To what extent (or maybe in what role) are copy editors able to employ Plain Language principles?
As the reader’s advocate, we must always step into their shoes and identify the requirements of the medium. If the reader and the medium demand plainer text, then we need to intervene at a deep level to convert unplain to more accessible text. We do so for the sake of consumers, students and other readers, not to satisfy self-centred authors.
But this presupposes that text editors are sufficiently au fait with Plain Language principles to be able to apply them to texts. I recently accepted possibly my most challenging assignment to date: to convert legal contracts and explanatory documents so that they could be readily understood by the township spaza entrepreneurs who had to sign them – a Plain Language conversion par excellence!
It’s evident that PEG’s commitment to Plain Language has been steadfast and continues into its 30th year and beyond. As we continue to learn about and apply Plain Language principles, it might be apt to think on the words of William Zinsser, lifelong journalist and non-fiction writer, ‘Writing improves in direct ratio to the things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there’, or EB White, co-author of The Elements of Style, who said ‘Use the smallest word that does the job’, or George Orwell’s comment, ‘The message is important, not the fancy language wrapped around it’.
For more on Plain Language, follow these links and the classic publication on the subject:
Cutts, M 2013 (4th ed) Oxford Guide to Plain English. New York: OUP
US SEC A plain English handbook August 1998.