Communication is a
highly ambiguous activity, dependent on a myriad of contextual factors. In many cultural contexts ambiguity is highly valued. There is something mysterious, magical and perhaps powerful in meanings that defy and resist being pinned down. But in other contexts, ambiguity needs to be minimised. One such context is the providing of information: giving directions, explanations or instructions, sending out bills and forms, describing the legal or financial obligations of a situation, and so on—that is, those contexts where people have to act on information, and where the consequences of inappropriate action could be disastrous.
Designing information so that people can act on it appropriately is not easy. There are so many problems: problems of ambiguity of meanings; problems of how we read and use information, where we look for it, what we expect, and how we react; problems of literacy, choice of words, illustrations, typography, layout, tone…I could go on, but these are enough problems for now.
Approaches to the useful and efficient design of information vary, and at bottom are based on how information designers understand the nature of communication.
One extremely common view is known as the sender-message-receiver (SMR) model. This works as follows. Person S (the sender) wants to communicate something to Person R (the receiver). S knows precisely what he (or of course she) means to say, and clothes this meaning in words (encodes it, to use the jargon) to produce a message, which he then sends to R. R having received this message undresses (decodes) the message to reveal S’s meaning beneath the words. As long as S has chosen the clothes carefully, according to a set of rules, the result is a beautiful symmetry or transparency between sender and receiver (or speaker and listener, writer and reader, information-giver and information-finder, etc).
This idea of communication, as a movement of ideas from one mind into another, is the theory which informs the Plain Language movement. Plain language experts clothe meanings according to the Plain Language rules. The rules are fairly simple: short sentences, everyday vocabulary, no fancy punctuation, and so on. By following the rules, they claim, they can send clear, unambiguous messages. If this seems to you sensible, even commonsense, then you too should become a plain language advocate and learn how to scrub the everyday world of public communication clean, leaving no trace of ambiguity or misunderstanding, just a beautiful transparency of ideas between minds. This is the vision splendid of a world of public discourse given over to plain language.
And, of course, we would expect advocates of such purity to practice what they preach, being a shining beacon, an example to us all.
How odd then and deliciously ironic that a forthcoming international conference on plain language should have an ambiguous title. It’s called ‚’Raising the standard’ and as if to reinforce the ambiguity in the word ‚’standard’, on the website advertising the conference is a picture of a flying flag. How is such ambiguity possible? Does one meaning reinforce the other? If I become an advocate—raising the flag/standard—will I also raise the standard of language use in our midst? Does the one idea necessarily lead to the other? If I believe in something, will it come true? Well, not necessarily.
The irony is doubly revealing. On the one hand it reveals a naiveté, a common weakness in true believers: We believe it, so it’s the Truth.
On the other hand, because faith conquers all, it reveals a disregard of simple rationality. If people claim to be raising the standard of language usage, it’s legitimate to ask what they are raising the standard from, and towards what. How are we to know at the end of the day whether or not the standard of usage has been raised? What is it today, and what do we want it to be tomorrow? On this all-important question plain language advocates are oddly mute.
As the conference is being held in Australia, not the embarrassingly backward USA, it is worth pointing out that the Australian Federal Government has had a Plain English Policy since 1983. Plain English, as a writing style, has now permeated most of the public sector at Federal, State, and Local Government. Further, it is commonly used in businesses that deal directly with the public. Most large banks, insurance companies, retail traders and service providers use the plain English style of writing as the default style in communicating with the public. There are, of course, exceptions, but they are notable for being so. Plain English is the norm.
Do Australians feel that they are living in a society in which clarity and transparency are the norm? I suspect not. Yet with all this plain English about, how can this be so? Could it be that plain English is not as clear as it seems to the true believers? Is there evidence to the contrary, despite the ‘raised’ standard? Well, yes, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary: not only does the communication model embraced by the Plain language movement defy 400 years thinking in the philosophy of language and 100 years researching in psychology, but also there is a large amount of empirical evidence that shows that on its own, plain language is not a sufficient nor necessary ingredient of clear communication.
At the margins of this great conference, I will be giving a paper on an evidence-based approach to standards in public communication. In it I will suggest, based on evidence from many case histories, that skilled language use (not necessarily plain) plays an important but relatively small part in creating a high standard of public communication, seldom exceeding 10% of the total effort. Other factors and a range of skills, beyond those of writing in a particular style, account for a much larger share of the costs in raising the standard of public communication from its current poor level (as measured) to a measurably higher standard.
The final irony is that if someone who is an expert in Plain English tells you they can create clear and transparent communication, they may be misleading you. They can write in a style that superficially looks clear, but to use a non-plain, non-English adage, caveat emptor.