(MENAFN – The Conversation)
Which sentence is easier to understand? “He was taken to his place of residence intoxicated.” Or, “He was carried home drunk.” Most people choose the latter for obvious reasons.
This centuries-old example is a useful example of how “plain text” can be used to communicate more clearly, from everyday interactions to government documents.
The new Plain Language Bill now before Parliament aims to make this more than just an ideal. Comprehensible information from government agencies is a fundamental democratic right.
The urge for simplicity
Plaintext movements emerged in several countries during the 1970s, including Britain, the United States, and Canada. And there is evidence that the very first mention of plain language dates back to the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century.
However old, these movements strove for clear, simple, and accessible language in official documents. This isn’t just a nice-to-have. In some cases, it can save your life – for example, pandemic directives from the Department of Health.
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And there is also an element of linguistic equality: minorities, migrants and marginalized communities have greater difficulty understanding complex and jargon-laden documents, further tipping the scales against them.
Plain language is a matter of fairness that allows non-native speakers to better understand official documents. Getty Images What is plain language?
There is no single definition of plain language, but both the UK and US commonly use the one proposed by the International Plain Language Working Group:
In practice, it is easier to recognize a text that is written in plain language than one that is not. But it also depends on who reads it. What may be plain language for some is not for others.
However, the basic principles of plain language texts in the English language include:
- Use concise sentences (maximum 15-20 words)
- positive (not negative) clauses
- active voice, not passive (“when you break the law” not “when the law is broken”)
- Verbs instead of complex nouns (“identify” not “identify”)
- common words instead of jargon.
Although the principles of plain language are not new, they are required by New Zealand legislation.
The plaintext law
Aotearoa New Zealand’s Plain Language Bill aims to:
The bill before Parliament does not explicitly define plaintext beyond this description. We’ll have to wait for the details.
If the bill is passed, the Public Service Commissioner will need to produce material to help authorities meet plain language requirements.
Only after seeing this guidance material do we know what impact reforms could have on government documents. So MPs will essentially be voting without knowing what the bill will actually ask of the authorities in practice.
The devil is in the details
There are a few other important things to note about what the bill does and doesn’t do.
The aim is to improve the accessibility of documents for people with disabilities. It does not affect the use of ter reo Māori in government agency documents, nor does it propose compelling agencies to translate documents into languages other than English.
Perhaps most importantly, the bill lacks enforcement mechanisms, although agencies and agents will be asked to report on their progress.
The bill is procedural in nature: it creates no enforceable rights or obligations. The public cannot find any remedy if they continue to encounter documents that are difficult to understand.
As the New Zealand bill is closely modeled on the US Plain Writing Act 2010, it makes sense to look at the impact of the law there.
After its passage, proponents of plain language in the US were initially unimpressed by its impact. But the Center for Plain Language, a nongovernmental organization that publishes testimonials about writing quality in government agency documents, found significant improvements between 2013 and 2021.
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In 2013, half of the 20 agencies audited either failed or needed improvement to meet plaintext writing requirements, while in 2021 all agencies passed.
Will it work?
Will this law help make government documents more accessible to New Zealanders? The short answer is we don’t know yet. But the US experience suggests some progress is likely.
However, one thing the New Zealand bill is already doing is raising awareness of the need for clear communication. Some MPs expressed concern about the cost of the reforms, lack of enforceability and even that the new law will increase bureaucracy.
However, important insights can be gained from regular reporting. There are also potential financial benefits from reducing the amount of follow-up communication with government agencies.
Overall, there is a clear societal benefit from improving official communication. And instead of being taken home while intoxicated, drunks may simply be carried home.
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