In Plain Language

In Plain Language

Abhijeet Chavan's picture

Earlier this month, at a conference for legal aid professionals, attorney Jeff Hogue told me about the "plain language" movement. Also called "plain English", the objective is to communicate using clear language, free of jargon, and using words that are appropriate to the audience's reading skill level and knowledge.

Jeff also told me about Write Clearly which promotes the use of plain language in legal documents, provides sample documents, and a handy tool for testing the readability of text.

The use of plain language is actually the law in the United States. President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requiring federal agencies to use "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." The website http://www.plainlanguage.gov provides resources & guidelines for federal agencies.

Here are some before-and-after examples from government documents that illustrate how plain language can be effective:

Example 1

Before:

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.

After:

Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.

Example 2

Before:

After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September 1997. CA/OR DGN vessel operators are required to attend Skipper Education Workshops at annual intervals thereafter, unless that requirement is waived by NMFS. NMFS will provide sufficient advance notice to vessel operators by mail prior to convening workshops.

After:

After notification from NMFS, vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing each fishing season.

Example 3

Before:

When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.

After:

If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.

One way to encourage web content writers to use plain language is to provide a tool that makes it easy to evaluate readability during the authoring and editing process itself. In the Drupal universe, there is a module for that.

The Drupal Readability Analysis module provides editors of a Drupal website with a tool for conducting five automated readability tests. Readability is measured as a grade-level equivalency. You can set a grade level range you wish to aim for as a site-wide setting. The module reports if the text you are editing meets your website's readability objectives.

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