"Tell it To Me Straight": The politics of plain language

the politics of plain language in the modern world.jpg

I'm proud to be a member of the Editors' Association of Canada every day, but on 12th October I felt especially so. It began when I received an email from the EAC informing me of a significant event: International Plain Language Day. Tomorrow, it informed me, the EAC would begin a five-day campaign “to ask the Government of Canada to write laws in plain language”.

 “Plain language," (writing meant to ensure absolute clarity and understanding from its readers) may sound like a contradiction in terms; after all, what is writing for—particularly in terms of public service—if not to be understood? In fact, who doesn't write in plain language?
 
To begin with: our governments and legal systems. 

As the EAC so succinctly put it, “if people do not understand legislation and government policies, they cannot truly participate in democracy”. While some countries (among them Australia, Mexico, Sweden and the UK),  do have laws enforcing the use of plain language in government legislation and communication–they are varied and implemented to differing levels of success– many, including Canada, do not. Which prompts the EAC to pose the question:

“When will Canada commit to plain language and accessibility, not just in government communication but also in legislation?” [1]

The response? “Editors Canada says the time is now.” [1] And why on Earth not? How and why do we find ourselves, in the 21st century, asking for straightforward communication from the bodies meant to serve us?
 
One reason is that academic research on the intersection of language and the law is fairly young, dating primarily from the 1980s onward [1]. Another is simply that the sheer scale of translating a nation’s legislative policies, and applying that new language to all current legal and political communication, is vast; from university curricula and textbook content to courtroom interrogation and corporate contracts, the process of implementing plain language is certainly not a straightforward one.
 
And yet, there’s no time like the present. If plain language were to be implemented solely upon all written communication dating from 1st January, 2018 onward, for example, we would have begun the process of making our national and cultural structures more transparent. Those instrumental in the writing and dissemination of such complex communications would be faced with the not unchallenging task of deciphering them: a worthy exercise in itself. And perhaps law students fifty years from now would learn legalese (legal language, by its name and definition not simply English) like botanists do Latin: as an arcane language necessary only to the study of historical texts, rather than a code decipherable only to a privileged few.
 
Having professionally edited numerous legal contracts and been on the light end of government immigration legislation myself (I'm British and have enjoyed many years of squinting at visa applications and permanent residency documents), I've experienced some hefty frustration regarding the intentionally opaque ways that systems use language to obscure the facts and bamboozle readers—the very people such legislation is created to serve and protect.

And it’s not just laymen who read such documents with dismay. Richard Wydick, professor of law and author of Plain English for Lawyers, writes of the language of his profession: 

We lawyers do not write plain English. We use eight words to say what could be said in two. We use arcane phrases to express commonplace ideas. Seeking to be precise, we become redundant. Seeking to be cautious, we become verbose. Our sentences twist on, phrase within clause within clause, glazing the eyes and numbing the minds of our readers. The result is a writing style that has, according to one critic, four outstanding characteristics. It is “(1) wordy, (2) unclear, (3) pompous, and (4) dull.” [2]

We will all find ourselves subject to this language in our lives, and most often, whether it be an application for a work permit or a summons to court, the circumstance will be one that causes stress. The nature of this language ensures that that stress will be intensified, and will very possibly leave us feeling as if we’ve fallen prey to a system that’s using its expertise to strong-arm us.

And that’s what happens, because the distinction quickly becomes a financial one:

  • if you can afford a lawyer (or, better yet, a team of lawyers), you can be sure to find loopholes out of legal proceedings brought against you, and employ the same confusing language to defend yourself against future allegations;

  • if you can’t, you are vulnerable to suffering at the hands of those systems due to your very natural ignorance and lesser resources.

plain language in Canadian policy

If plain language were a legal requirement, banks and corporations would also be required to be transparent about their inner workings and financial dealings. Who knows what world economics might look like if plain language had been a requirement prior to the 2008 Wall Street Crash. In other words, legalese provides fertile ground for exploitation. 

“The legal implications of language continue to extend far beyond the courtroom – to interactions between police and suspects, to conversations between lawyers and their clients, to law enforcement’s use of surreptitious recordings, and to such unlawful speech acts as offering a bribe, or issuing a threat, or making a defamatory statement.” [2]

Depending on whether you’ve considered the distinction between legislative language and plain language before, this may be either an obvious or a hyperbolic statement, but at it’s root, plain language is about equality

If I, with two degrees and a career in communications, and my (mostly better qualified) colleagues at the EAC find it difficult to understand a legal document, then people in already more vulnerable positions—those with less education, lower incomes, or living in neighbourhoods with high crime rates—are more vulnerable still to a) the hand of the law in the first place and b) the system behind it that obscures their rights and therefore compromises their freedom. And as editors, we are some of the best qualified to identify and call out this bogus form of communication. As Anne Louise Mahoney, Editors Canada president, affirms: 

"The main goal of an editor is to be an advocate for readers. Editors revise text so it will be clear and understandable the first time people read it. Advocating for legislation in plain language is a natural fit for editors." [1] 

Canadian discussion on plain language.png

Plain language is concerned with freedom of information, social equality, transparency, and human rights, and as such is integral to a society concerned with evolving its policies and righting national and international injustices. It also risks remaining a marginal concept, as so many of us take for granted that our governments use the simplest language possible to communicate with us, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

So far the EAC and other organizations that have recently addressed the Canadian government on the subject of plain language have not been answered. If you feel that Canadian (and international) laws should be accessible and clear to all citizens, you can still enter into the conversation. You can use the following hashtags to connect:

#plainshare2016
#plainlanguage
#BecauseIts2016
#JustSociety
#lawaccess
#Plain4Democracy
#plain4me
#plainlaw

NB: Plain language has the potential to benefit many other aspects of our daily lives, including business, economics, health, education, safety and more. See 13 Benefits of Plain Language for more insights into why it’s important.  

[1] EAC email, 12 October 2016.
[2] Sanford Schane, Language and the Law. London/New York: Continuum. 2006:3
[3] Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (4th ed.). Durham: North Carolina:
Carolina Academic Press. 1998:3.

 

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  KATE JUNIPER   Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. Inspired, most often, to write about writing. She has a lot of opinions about it, you know. 

KATE JUNIPER

Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. Inspired, most often, to write about writing. She has a lot of opinions about it, you know. 

  HAYLEY EVANS   Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine. 

HAYLEY EVANS

Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine. 

  GEORGIA RUDELOFF   Georgia is a published poet as well as Poetry Editor for  This Side of West,  Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for  The   Albatross , and Contributing Writer for  The Martlet  and  Saltern Magazine.

GEORGIA RUDELOFF

Georgia is a published poet as well as Poetry Editor for This Side of West, Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for The Albatross, and Contributing Writer for The Martlet and Saltern Magazine.

  JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS   Jaime is a Research Curator at a university and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Content Writer and Communications Specialist.

JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS

Jaime is a Research Curator at a university and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Content Writer and Communications Specialist.