Caryn Gootkin discusses the concept of plain language in South Africa, analysing whether the Consumer Protection Act does enough to define and promote it. And whether we should be in the slightest bit interested in the answer.
Two simple, somewhat boring words, each one easily understood by anyone with even a passing grasp of English. They are both probably used by most of us every day – the former most often as an adjective meaning “simple” or “unadorned”; the latter as a noun referring to the words we use to communicate.
Put them together, however, and they cease to be merely an adjective and the noun it qualifies (“plain language”). They morph into a Concept (“Plain Language”**); one that has become a buzzword in South African business, linguistic and legal circles.
Our Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 68 of 2008, compels all communication with consumers to be in plain language. But, oddly enough, there is no definition of plain language in the CPA. There are nine pages of definitions, ranging from the esoteric (“provincial consumer protection authority”) to the bleeding obvious (“sms”).
Is it only me or does this appear to be giving with the one hand and taking with the other? How can you introduce a new concept into the statute books and then leave those bound by the legislation clueless as to how to comply with the new law? The righteous indignation I feel at even having to pose these questions is temporarily tempered by the satisfaction of knowing that this paradox will form the basis of my next column.
I have reproduced the text of the relevant section verbatim for you, not to make up my word count, but to introduce the angle I am going to cover in my next CPA column. Not only does the Act not define the term, it also couches the obligation to address consumers in plain language in convoluted legalese.
Go on, read it. I dare you.
“Section 22. Right to information in plain and understandable language
(2) For the purposes of this Act, a notice, document or visual representation is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice, document or visual representation is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services, could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the notice, document or visual representation without undue effort, having regard to—
(a) the context, comprehensiveness and consistency of the notice, document or visual representation;
(b) the organisation, form and style of the notice, document or visual representation;
(c) the vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the notice, document or visual representation; and
(d) the use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding”.
Now you may or may not have understood all or some of that. If you didn’t, worry not: Section 22(2) of the CPA is rather difficult to comprehend. Verbiage aside, all 137 words reside in one sentence leaving the reader with the feeling they have bitten off more than they can chew.
I ask you to let this fact sink in slowly over the next few days and to join me next week to discover what Plain Language means in those legal systems in which it has been entrenched for many years. I hope that will give us some hints on how to interpret our own plain language obligations.
Come on, you know you want to. But even if you don’t, you should. Because how else are you going to make sense of this hypocritical aspect of this legislation?
- I am not usually one for capitalising nouns that are not proper. In fact, I battle constantly with a certain corporate client in the property investment industry who tends to aggrandise even simple words like “Office” (and he is not referring to Microsoft’s version). I think he is over-capitalising.
- But even I have to make exceptions, for which I do not wish to be vilified. And so, by reading this column you agree, whether directly or indirectly, openly or tacitly, to indemnify and hold me harmless from any criticism, vitriol or public embarrassment, whether direct or indirect, which you may wish to cast, toss, hurl or throw at me as a result of, or arising out of, or in connection with my use or abuse of capital letters in this column, or in any other written text, either online or in printed format, which I have written, composed, proofed or edited either now or at any time in the future .
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