Critical Comment

If I thought it would do any good, I would advocate that every so-called ‘plain language’ document should have a warning:


But warnings, like many aspects of communication—including ‘plain’ language—are not all they are cracked up to be (see our recent review of boxed warnings). The simple fact, with far from simple consequences, is that communication is messy and non-predictable (not just unpredictable). Any attempt to reduce communication to a few simple rules fails. Plain Language advocates offer us a few simple rules. They are good rules and in the main, well intentioned. But neither of these are a necessary or sufficient basis for good communication.

Here is a cautionary tale. In 1983 the Australian Federal Government introduced a Plain Language policy, and plain English has been specified in Federal legislation since then. It would now be the case that most government public documents in Australia, at federal, state, and local government levels, are written in ‘plain’ language. The Australian style manual—the authoritative guide on writing for our public servants—advises public servants to use plain language, which it describes cautiously as ‘the standard register’ (p 53). We should, therefore, be living in something approaching plain language heaven, where communication between government and citizen is clear, understandable, and simple. How strange that we are not!

For example, one of the most disliked documents in Australia must be the TaxPack: a comprehensive guide and form for completing your annual tax return (I must confess to having had some part in developing the basic idea. But it is my equivalent of Oppenheimer’s bomb). It is written in ‘plain’ language to the highest standard. It is well laid out and has many good typographical and design features. Yet every year three quarters of the Australian tax-paying public choose not to use it, and instead part with their own money to employ a tax consultant to do their annual tax return for them, spending about one billion dollars in the process. Something is obviously not quite right.

Here’s another example, from our recent work with one of our Corporate Members—a state government organization. This organization wants to redesign a form that has to be filled in by every family in that state. As is our normal practice, we tested the existing form before starting work on redesign. Not one of the people who participated in our testing could fill in the form correctly. Yet it is written in so-called ‘plain’ language and, like the tax pack, has many good typographical and design features.

These are not isolated examples.

I was prompted to write this particular blog because Plain Language advocates in the USA are all of a dither with excitement; there is legislation before the USA Congress requiring all government bodies to use plain language, no doubt in the belief that this will lead in due course to plain language heaven.

Why is plain language heaven as unlikely in the USA as it has been in Australia? I could give a long and complex explanation, but the basics are simple enough. There is no secret to good communication. Good communication grows out of conversation between people with a mutual interest in the same thing. Our bureaucrats in Australia, like those in most countries, do not know how to conduct conversations with citizens, are certainly not interested in doing so through mutual interest, and, importantly, are not required to do so. Even when they seem to be attempting to do so through such devices as surveys and focus groups, it is, like most of what they do in the area of communication, a token exercise in which they can be seen to be doing something without actually doing it. As one public servant explained to me once, when I suggested some real conversations with citizens: ‘You have to understand, our concern is with process, not outcomes.’

And this is why plain language is positively dangerous.

Our research, and that of many others show that when people see a document in plain language—a token simulation of a conversational style—they feel confident that they will be able to understand it. But again, as the research shows, this is not necessarily the case. When they don’t, and are aware of their failure, they are more inclined to blame themselves than the document; after all, it is in plain language! And this is where the DANGER lies. People are lulled into a totally false sense of confidence when faced with ‘plain’ language, as are the critics of governments’ communication with citizens. At least with closely-set 6 point gobbledigook you knew someone was trying to pull the wool over your eyes, or worse. With so-called plain language, it looks as if power and control have been put to one side in favour of open and reciprocal dialogue. Sadly, the Plain Language advocates who believe that are simply naïve.

My preference is for an agreed level of performance for government documents that is backed by evidence, not some token gesture that is based on a particular style of writing. We know from our own research that this is not only achievable but capable of being implemented in practical regulation of communication.

I think the intentions of many advocates of Plain Language are honourable, as are the people who want to warn us about potential dangers, but the road to hell (to paraphrase someone who is not Samuel Johnson) is clearly signposted with warnings in plain language.

Snooks & Co 2002
Style manual for authors, editors and printers 6th Edition
Australia: John Wiley and Sons
“For many kinds of government and other information documents, a neutral style of communication is needed, one that puts neither distance nor undue familiarity into the relationship with readers. This is the role of the standard register which makes no assumptions about its readers, and informs them fully so that they can independently on that information”. (p 52)

The Style Guide goes on to say:
“Plain English roughly equates to the standard register…and plain English has been specified in federal legislation since 1983”. (p 53)