Caryn Gootkin wonders if she has bitten off more than she can chew in her quest to understand and advise her clients how to comply with the legislative imperative to communicate with consumers in plain language.
Last week’s column introducing the concept of Plain Language in the Consumer Protection Act attracted a lot of interest. Some messages from fellow Plain Language practitioners were both complimentary and enlightening. Two in particular stand out and I will refer to them (with due credit) in the course of these CPA columns.
One response was both critical and sarcastic and seems to have intentionally missed my point. But I am not always correct (although my husband won’t believe I have just typed that), so if I didn’t make it clear last week, let me do so now. I do not claim to know all there is about Plain Language. In fact, my stated aim was to get to the bottom of what the legislature meant in s 22(2) (all 137 words of it) and in the process enlighten both myself and my readers.
The level of interest the column sparked has convinced me to delve deeper into this topic. As my editor is pretty strict about word count and the subject is so vast, I am going to have to break the topic into bite-sized chunks so that we don’t all get indigestion.
I am sure every reader has an understanding of what plain language is; I, however, want to dissect and analyse Plain Language. I alluded to the difference last week but I think it bears repeating. The concept I refer to with a capital “P” and “L” is an international movement. While I don’t believe it should ordinarily be written in capitals, I do so in these columns to distinguish it from referring to “simple words”.
Because, contrary to what my detractor thinks, although “(i)t’s not rocket science”, it is a complex subject that academics and businesspeople the world over are grappling with.
There are high-level commercial and governmental organisations throughout the world that campaign against inflated language, jargon and misleading public information. They also fulfil an educational role, producing plain language manuals and training writers and communicators (and, of course, legislators). There are rules and norms that plain language practitioners must adhere to in an effort to standardise Plain Language communication.
In fact, as I write, PLAIN (Plain Language Association International) has just finished its three day conference in Sweden. The programme, which you can access at http://www.plain2011.com/images/stories/plain2011program.pdf) is astounding both in range and depth of subject matter. By the time you read this most of the speakers’ presentations will be available on the website too.
(Much as I admire their work, and that of the American Plain Language Action and Information Network (also known as PLAIN), I find their acronyms a bit twee*. This is a good example of the wrap-it-up-and-tie-it-with-a-bow sentimentality I find hard to stomach in general. More, much more of this in future columns, I promise.)
So, while our CPA (and several other pieces of legislation) compels us to communicate in plain language, I suspect it makes more sense for us to interpret this as Plain Language. If we don’t, it will be impossible to achieve any form of standard compliance with the legislation and successfully monitoring communication will be both impractical and, I fear, unattainable.
S22(3) of the CPA empowers the newly established National Consumer Commission to publish guidelines for methods of assessing whether a notice, document or visual representation is in plain language.
As the NCC has not yet done this, we are in a legal no-man’s-land – compelled to comply in the absence of a clear understanding of what this entails. While we wait with baited breath for these explanatory words, which I hope will truly simplify the matter for us, we need to look elsewhere for guidance on how to communicate in Plain Language.
Our challenge when faced with such a wordy, conceptual definition is to scour the received wisdom from those legal systems that have long contained peremptory provisions relating to Plain Language. And that is exactly what I plan to do in the next few columns. I won’t reinvent the wheel, but I might oil it a bit so our journey proceeds more smoothly.
*Forgive me readers for I have sinned. I have used “twee”, meaning excessively or affectedly quaint. I have always wanted to use that word, and this seemed the perfect opportunity. And, while a wise woman once told me never to apologise until accused, there are those who would love to post a comment about my hypocritical use of grandiose and erudite language. Call me unnecessarily cautious if you must, but I choose the obsequious route.
Follow Caryn on Twitter @inotherwordscg