Despite the unifying power of language, several influences impact how members of society speak it differently due to linguistic variations and dialects. Since the conception of hierarchy in advanced civilizations, humankind developed certain cultural practices that signaled one's social status. Those on top had access to education and developed a lexicon divergent from those below, despite speaking the same language. Division persists today with unequal access to education, whose quality varies worldwide. Therefore, these coexisting circumstances inspired communication experts to develop an equalized standard of writing and publishing of public documents called plain language. This article aims to investigate the definition of plain language, whom it serves, its implementation in writing, and how vital its usage is to public empowerment through fair and equal communication.
Plain language (also known as plain English) establishes a level playing field where each citizen can understand critical information relayed by governmental organizations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the "2022 Plain Writing Act Compliance Report" (2022) defines plain language as
[A] writing style [that] is clear, concise, organized, and jargon-free. Documents written in plain language are less complex and therefore easier for everyone to understand, including people who have limited literacy skills, limited health literacy skills, or both (as cited in McCray-Dixon, p. 2).
Official institutions demanding this simplified way of phrasing information include practices in law, public safety and health, environment, economics, and policy. The concept of plain language has roots in the 1950s. Stuart Chase, an American economist, and social theorist was one of the leaders of Plain Language (in the U.S.) thanks to his book "The Power of Words" (1953): "[in which] Chase complained about 'gobbledygook' in texts" (Mazur, 2000, p. 205). Presumably, social theorists such as Chase recognized the psychological and sociological implications of the impact of incisive language on knowledge and human freedom. Government agencies and leaders across the globe have addressed the usage of plain language and advocated for a streamlined approach to language and visual design in public documents. The Australian government's style guide for plain language (2022) includes two examples of sentences showcasing confusing, convoluted language in a sentence and the simplified, accessible sentence:
Like this: We provide statistics for trade reports. Contact us with trade data requests and we’ll respond within 2 business days. Not this: Our team will happily provide you with any statistics you might be seeking for the purpose of producing better and more factually accurate trade reports. Let us know if you’re seeking specific trade data and we’ll seek to provide it to you as soon as we can, usually within 2 business days (Eliminate unnecessary words section).
In the United States, presidents acknowledged plain language in written communication by the federal government. Former president Bill W. Clinton’s administration (1998) declared the vital role that plain language has in governmental documentation released to the public: "We are determined to make the government more responsive, accessible, and understandable in its communications with the public" (p. 1010). Since then, technical, governmental, and legal fields continued incorporating plain language design into public materials. The “law” the FDA references is the “Plain Writing Act of 2010”. The law mandates that plain language must be implemented in any documents made for public consumption:
[The Act] calls for plain writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and consistent with other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, The Plain Writing Act of 2010 section, 2022, para. 1).
Other industries, for-profit and nonprofits, and governmental and non-governmental organizations alike followed suit to make information more accessible.
Plain language is also often referenced as Plain English on account of globalization and imperialist history that shaped English as the world’s language of business. Ethnologue (2022), an annual reference publication that provides statistics on world languages, conducted a language survey in 2021 for 2022 concluding that 1.5 billion people speak English worldwide both natively and as a foreign language (“The most spoken languages worldwide in 2022”).
Therefore, any business conducted multi-nationally must include simplified English, avoiding colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions. Many governments, higher academia, and scientific fields also write official documents and scholarships in English. Philip G. Altbach (2007), an author and researcher from Boston University, states that “Academic programmes offered in English have become widespread in many non-English speaking countries” (p. 3909). Consequently, professors and students in higher academia worldwide feel the pressure to publish findings and learn the material in English and attend programs built with prestigious curricula established by major English-speaking countries. As a result, the pressure for high-functioning proficiency in English limits access to those residing in countries without English as the dominant language who cannot afford to study advanced English abroad. The continued hegemony of gatekeeping knowledge essential to mankind limits innovation in study and even forces cultures to abandon their unique identities to compete.
Fortunately, plain language advocates from many countries have come together to develop general plain writing standards that can be applied in every language. International associations promoting this method of public communication include The International Plain Language Federation assembled in 2007 to congregate three member organizations: Plain Language Association International (PLAIN), Center for Plain Language, and Clarity. In these associations, members from English and non-English speaking countries work together to set plain language standards, conduct research, release publications, and issue certification and training. Representatives from each organization are currently writing the final draft of plain language standards for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) that "works in most languages and cultures, and in all sectors" (Gergely, 2021, para. 1). Additionally, the draft has "experts from 25 countries, on every continent except Antarctica" working tirelessly to complete it by mid-2022 (Gergely, 2021, para. 2). Inclusive advocacy efforts such as the one mentioned above will eliminate misunderstandings of vital information multinationally.
Aside from second language learners, native speakers are understandably unfamiliar with technical jargon. As aforementioned, some native speakers have limited academic ability based on location within that country. Jessica Drescher et al. (2022) conducted research in the U.S. using 430 million standardized test scores across the U.S. to find disparities between rural and nonrural groups in addition to socioeconomic, racial, and geographic factors. The researchers concluded that
Rural students face a number of hurdles to educational attainment, including financial burden, a lack of nearby jobs that require a degree, geographic isolation from higher educational institutions … (p. 140).
Disproportionate academic backgrounds may also occur at varying levels in other countries and for this reason, setting an international standard will aid in alleviating this burden.
Furthermore, internationals studying, working, and immigrating to other countries also require adapted language to stay informed on important news and information just as much as a lay native reader. Hence, plain language should be standardized with a set of guidelines not only for the sake of conducting international business. Beth Mazur (2000), a communications specialist from Georgetown University, reiterates a common misconception about plain language supporters: "In fact, many plain language proponents seem to share a similar respect for the user with their information design counterparts" (p. 207). Plain language does not simplify language with the assumption that the average citizen lacks the ability to comprehend information. Rather, it is unreasonable to assume an audience with a majority of members outside a specific discipline, even very well-educated ones, will comprehend heavily jargoned text. Mazur’s statements about respect remain accurate as researchers in informational design dedicate their studies to how readers respond to typography, font, size, style, spacing, and alignment in print and digital texts. The phrase “dumbing it down” does a disservice to the reality of what plain language does, which is to remove inaccessible vocabulary and lengthy sentences.
Creating documents in plain language is not a simple process, either. Sue Stableford and Wendy Mettger (2007) are health literacy advocates and plain language experts who underscore the non-simplistic affair of writing simplistically,
It is both an art and science, requiring the ability to simultaneously think about the cognitive, emotional, and visual appeal of a piece as well as applying research-based strategies (p. 81).
Surely such an elaborate undertaking by communication professionals demonstrates the indispensability of this writing technique.
In conclusion, more simplified language from highly multiplex but essential fields encourages the human right to information and education. The enactment of such attentive language design may have philosophical criticisms regarding what truly constitutes “plain language”. Nonetheless, ongoing research, changing technologies, and social conditions will enable additional updates and administration. The purpose of plain language is not to insult but to empower each individual regardless of expertise and background. At best, a frustrated public will vocalize their discontent and demand clarification. At worst, a misled individual could make detrimental decisions regarding the health and welfare of themselves and others. Thus, plain language standardization by federal governments throughout the world expands accessibility for all, both nationally and internationally, and allows for more productive, well-informed citizens.
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Clinton, W. (1998). Memorandum on Plain Language in Government Writing. Administration of William J. Clinton. Retrieved from https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/WCPD-1998-06-08/pdf/WCPD-1998-06-08-Pg1010.pdf
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Drescher, J., Podolsky, A., Reardon, S. F., & Torrance, G. (2022). The Geography of rural educational opportunity. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 8(3), 123–149. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48663798
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Mazur, B. (2000). Revisiting Plain Language. Technical Communication, 47(2), 205–211. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43748853
McCray-Dixon, N. (2022). 2022 Plain Writing Act Compliance Report. Department of Health and Human Services. 1-25. https://www.fda.gov/media/159676/download
Stableford, S., Mettger., W. (2007). Plain language: A strategic response to the health literacy challenge. Journal of Public Health Policy, 28(1), 71–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4498942
Stoop, P. N. (2011). Plain language and assessment of plain language. International Journal of Private Law, 4(3), 329. https://doi.org/10.1504/ijpl.2011.041063
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