Plain Language: It’s not only about words

Posted on Aug 5, 2015 in Guest blog

Over the past few years, I’ve been writing a book about ethics and plain language. I was invited to reflect here on what I’ve learned, and I’m happy to share six of the most important lessons that stand out for me.

1. Plain language is an international cause supported by an international community. While several countries have advocates for “plain English,” many other countries have advocates for clear communication in their nations’ languages. In addition, organizations like Plain Language Association InterNational and Clarity host valuable conferences for people around the world. I’m fortunate to have comments in my book from professionals in the US, Canada, England, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

2. There are many ways to “do” plain language. Some organizations use plain-language glossaries and editing checklists to shape their work. Many organizations use some type of usability testing. One group started by defining the size, shape, and contents of the target documents—a set of pocket-sized booklets, each with ten guidelines for the audience to follow. Within those constraints, it was natural to write the contents in plain language. Websites, apps, and other media provide many ways to create and share plain language.

3. Plain-language experts are eager to help. Plain-language advocates around the world share a goal of helping people get the information they need. The history of plain language has many examples of people changing confusing documents into plain language so that audiences could understand them. Plain-language advocates are also eager to share with colleagues what they know about communication. Many plain-language experts took part in my research, and I couldn’t have completed my book without them.

4. Plain language is not only about words. It is important, of course, to choose words that the audience can understand. Plain language also involves choices about layout, design, graphics, and which medium to use. Effective plain language also reflects the audience’s culture appropriately. Again, usability testing is valuable and important.

5. We can apply plain language to many situations. My book provides profiles of six organizations that use plain language in these areas:

  • consumer health and medical information,
  • administration of local elections,
  • Internet privacy policies,
  • federal court rules,
  • mortgage documentation, and
  • health literacy.

Certainly many other areas benefit from plain language as well, so I coined an acronym to help identify them: BUROC situations are bureaucratic, unfamiliar, rights oriented, and critical.

6. Plain language supports ethical action. Plain-language documents

  • save readers time and money; this reflects the ethical standard of utility, or seeking the greatest benefit.
  • can help people act on their rights as consumers, patients, or citizens;
  • can address imbalances of power between an organization and its constituents; and
  • can help people who face stressful and difficult decisions.

My research showed me how the plain-language community is diverse, vibrant, and strong. There are many ways that all of us can use plain language to make a difference for someone else.


About the author: Russell Willerton, Ph.D., teaches technical communication at Boise State University. He was a judge for the 2015 ClearMark awards. His new book, Plain Language and Ethical Action: A Dialogic Approach to Technical Content in the Twenty-First Century, is available internationally from Routledge.