Plain English can be a life or death issue.
I’ve heard and read about the heartbreaking tragedy at the Disney resort in Florida, where a 2-year-old was snatched from shallow water by an alligator. Better legal writing – meaning better signage – could have prevented this tragedy, and could prevent others.
The sign at the water’s edge said simply, “no swimming.” The parents were near their son, who was wading and splashing. Perhaps Disney used a “no swimming” sign because it is less scary than “beware of alligators / stay 3 feet from the water’s edge.” In a web search for “alligator warning signs,” I found several examples that were also ineffective. Although one sign said, “stay away from water,” another noted that alligators are dangerous, and warned merely “keep your distance.” Would that language have helped people who don’t know that alligators often hide in water before striking? Likewise, several signs warned against feeding alligators without warning about keeping away from alligators, and without indicating that staying away from water is important.
It is understandable that any resort owner would not want to frighten its guests, but in this case a “no swimming” sign was not the right answer. To write a useful warning sign, the writer must analyze audience, purpose, location, document design, behavioral issues, and the like. Audience is particularly important in this context. For example, Floridians probably know to keep a small child away from the water’s edge in areas where alligators live. People from Great Lakes states (like myself), on the other hand, see lakes and worry more about drowning and undertow than about wild animals. It would not occur to them that standing with their child in shallow water could be dangerous.
Certainly, a creative and intelligent writer of plain English could figure out how to write a sign that makes people safe without terrifying them. Then again, I’d rather have a few people terrified and that little boy still alive.
About the author: Mary Beth Beazley is a Professor of Law at The Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law. She has held numerous leadership positions in legal education, including President of the Legal Writing Institute and Chair of the ABA Communication Skills Committee.