With plain language having become law in South Africa, it’s important that businesses and plain-language practitioners understand what the various Acts have to say about plain language.
The Consumer Protection Act, National Credit Act and Companies Act have very similar definitions of plain language. In this short article, I’ll give some key points that all plain-language writers in South Africa need to know about these definitions. I’ll work from the CPA definition, the relevant part of which is:
“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”.
Prioritises the reader over the text
The most important aspect of plain language is to write for your reader. It’s interesting to see that the first half of the definition talks about the reader. Important points it tells us include:
- The reader is an ‘ordinary consumer’ in the target audience
- The reader has ‘minimal experience’ in the relevant product or service
- The reader must be able to understand not only the ‘content’ but also the relevance and importance (‘significance’ and ‘import’) of the content
- The reader must be able to understand the above without ‘undue effort’.
The fact that the definition opens with an explanation of the reader, and not with the text, tells us about how plain language should be measured. It tells us that we need to do consumer testing (user testing) of our documents to ensure that readers understand them.
Expert evaluations, or scoring with software tools (readability scoring), will not be enough to meet the provisions of the plain-language laws – as they are intended.
Typical elements of plain-language text
The second part of the definition focuses more on the text. It highlights various areas to watch out for, including the following:
- Context (how the document is used)
- Comprehensiveness and accuracy (so plain language is about what you write as well as how you write)
- Sentence-level components such as sentence structure
- Word-level components such as terminology and jargon
- Reading aids, such as headings and examples
How you can learn more about plain language
Plain language is an exciting and dynamic field. The easiest way to stay in touch with global trends and research is to join one of the international groups. There are two main groups:
Clarity: This is a worldwide group of lawyers and others who advocate using plain language in place of legalese. Find out more at www.clarity-international.net. South African attorney and Simplified director, Candice Burt, serves as President of Clarity.
PLAIN: The Plain Language Association International is a volunteer non-profit organisation of plain-language advocates, professionals, and organisations committed to plain language. Find out more at www.plainlanguagenetwork.org.
Through these two groups, you can find out a whole lot more about how plain language is growing and changing as it becomes more regulated and professionalised around the world.
Frances Gordon is one of the founders of www.simplified.co.za
Facebook page: Simplified plain language at http://bit.ly/bgRiW6
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