Canadian Cheryl Stephens is one of the stalwarts of the plain language movement and co-founder of International Plain Language Day. She shares her experiences with us, shedding light on the history of the plain language movement.
In the 17th century Latin and French dominated England’s royal court and law courts, while the working people in the streets were demanding plain old English. Plain language remains a democratic demand and a civil right into the 21st century.
Australian Robert Eagleson was touring Canada when I first heard of plain language. In 1989 he shared his experiences as a professor of English and a consultant to law firms and government with the Canadian plain language movement. Clarity, an international association of lawyers favoring plain legal language, was already promoting clear legal writing from its base in England under the leadership of solicitor Mark Adler.
With Kate Harrison Whiteside, I founded what is now the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) in 1993. It is now one of the groups leading the international movement along with Clarity and the Washington DC-based Center for Plain Language.
Leading from the heart at the Center is Annetta Cheek, a veteran of 25 years with the U.S. government. Annetta was the key lobbyist in getting the US Plain Writing Act passed in 2010. Since October 13, 2010 U.S. government staff must write plainly all forms and information concerning public benefits and services.
This major accomplishment has inspired plain language proponents all over the world to renewed efforts. It was this that led me to persuade Kate Harrison Whiteside that we need an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the last 30 years in providing clear communications to our publics.
So Kate and I declared October 13, 2011 the first annual International Plain Language Day. This late inspiration gave us only weeks to organize but the Internet has brought both a greater demand for plain language and the tools to organize quickly. Many activities will take place in several countries.
Let me tell you what my wishes are for the future and why. This is my call:
1. Plain language guidelines taught in high school
In Canada, some provinces are turning the focus of high school English courses from literature to writing. Students learn to write business reports and correspondence, executive summaries, and other documents typical of the modern workplace. And from the start, the basic plain language guidelines have been incorporated. Those are the sort of writing suggestions you see published as 10 Tips to Write Plain English. At minimum, these are guidelines to modern writing and should be taught in high schools alongside advice on considering the audience and using appropriate formats and structures.
2. Plain language included in all college and university writing courses
Plain language writing processes and style guidelines need to be included in the teaching of all business and professional writing. Think of it as “Plain Language Across the Curriculum”. Professional development programs at the graduate level and in continuing professional education need to teach plain language in all communication modes, including writing and speech-making. Plain language is the most persuasive language.
I gathered 18 international contributors to write Plain Language in Plain English with this in mind.
3. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience discoveries incorporated in plain language
Plain language process and guidelines have developed in stages from what the then-current level of knowledge provided:
- Advancing classical rhetoric
- Promoting modern writing style
- Incorporating the tools of user-testing
- Scientific research into subjects like typology or brain functions
But scientific research has expanded so much in the last 20 years that plain language practitioners could not keep up. Money for research is needed to ensure that plain language procedures take advantage of current scientific discoveries. The most significant of these seem to be in the new area of study: cognitive fluency.
4. Standards of plain language based on science and set by plain language professionals and not legislators
Early U.S. legislation in the consumer field set specific guidelines for readability and typography in consumer contracts. More recent legislation, even internationally, has set more general guidelines, such as saying that documents must be understandable to the intended readers.
With the newly discovered information about how the brain processes information through reading, we can be more specific in the guidelines that are set. I am hoping that academics and scientists can produce practical guidelines for communicating effectively with the person with average abilities.
Legal requirements should be based on provable facts.
Individuals like Mark, Robert, Annetta, Kate, and I, who are passionate about the issue, have kept the plain language movement alive even when changes in political regimes cancelled projects and institutions. I thank them for their pioneering activism and camaraderie in the early days of our movement.
I am proud that the Mayor of Vancouver has proclaimed October 13 International Plain Language Day for my city. I encourage others to start now to get a proclamation from their own city next year.