Let’s Simplify Legal Jargon!

This TED Talk from February 2010 can still inspire us.

Alan Siegel, a branding expert and one of the leading authorities on business communication, calls for the use of plain English to create documents that we can all understand. In this video, he present a clear argument for the need to “make clarity, simplicity and transparency a national priority.”

Watch on TED Talks

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Contracts for the Modern Age

Most legal contracts seem to be rooted in an ancient language, filled with words like herein, thereto and hereby. But according to a recent article for A List Apart, there’s no reason to write contracts as if we are citizens of ancient Rome. It’s time to update our legal contracts for the 21st century.

This article may be written for web site designers writing contracts for work with clients, but it provides good advice for anyone writing contracts. (more…)

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How Much is Plain Language Worth?

Writing for Dollars book coverJoe Kimble, professor of law at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, has just finished his long awaited new book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law. Carolina Academic Press, which also published his earlier book Lifting the Fog of Legalese, is the publisher.

The book sets out the elements of plain language, debunks the 10 biggest myths about it, summarizes 40 historical highlights, and summarizes 50 (no less) studies on the benefits of plain language for everyone–readers, writers, businesses, and government agencies.


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The cost of fine print? About $3K a year.

moneyIf you think America is shifting to a culture of transparency, unfortunately, you’re wrong: consumers are drowning in more fine print and byzantine disclosure language than ever before.  Bank contracts and product manuals commonly bloat to hundreds of pages, in type as small as 1/6 of an inch.

Who reads this stuff? Almost nobody. And as this news clip from a CBS affiliate in Alabama reveals, that costs the average household about $3,000 a year.

Lawyers argue that excessive language is necessary to “protect consumers.”  But until disclosures are presented in a form people actually read, they’re doing just the opposite: allowing organizations to bury unattractive terms in pages of jargon, while simultaneously shielding them from legal liability.

“Devil in the Details” by Shanisty Myers

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The Plain Regulations Act, HR 3786: Making Federal Regulations Accessible

On January 18, Congressman Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) introduced the Plain Regulations Act. Braley also introduced the Plain Writing Act, which became law on October 13, 2010, with strong bipartisan support. The original draft of that Act had covered regulations, but the provision was deleted during the legislative process because of opposition from several sources. (more…)

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Boiling down the blah-blah-blah

To all those who still think plain language = low-literacy: have you taken a look at your mobile phone contract lately? Or your cable agreement? Chances are, you’re paying more than you think.

This month’s SmartMoney Magazine catalogs a horrifying array of contracts, product waivers and legal disclosures with language that has likely bamboozled each and every one of us at some point.

From 100+ page checking account contracts to unexpected fees in everything from airline tickets to gift cards, this lack of clarity is costing us, big time. Experts estimate that hidden disclosures cost each American household more than $2,000 a year.

Fed up yet?

 Attack of the Fine Print 


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Clarity 2012 Conference: May 21 – 23

Co-hosted by Clarity with the Center for Plain Language and Scribes — The American Society of Legal Writers

National Press Club in Washington DC

As a champion of plain language, here’s why you should attend Clarity 2012:

  • The Speakers: A packed agenda of world-wide experts, including Congressman Bruce Braley,  the Honorable Lee Rosenthal, Eamonn Moran (Hong Kong),  Dr. Neil James (Australia), Susan Kleimann, Prof. Joe Kimble, Bryan Garner, Amy Friend, Dr. Annetta Cheek, Candice Burt (South Africa) and Christopher Balmford (Australia). 
  • The ProgramSessions include exciting master classes on language and structure, insights into new research, and best practices for juries, ballots, criminal law, mobile sites and more. 
  • The ClearMark Awards Banquet: The Center for Plain Language presents our annual ClearMark awards on May 22, celebrating some of the best documents in the U.S., and poking gentle fun at some of the worst. 
  • The Clarity Band: The Clarity Band will perform after the dinner. If the dancing at the Clarity conference in Lisbon, Portugal is anything to go by, then the Clarity Band alone is reason enough to attend the conference. 
  •  Early bird discount — conference fee
    The conference fees (in US$) are:

    • $450 for government employees and members of Clarity, the Center, or Scribes ($400 if you book before March 1)
    • $500 for general public  ($450 if you book before March 1)

 Register online for the conference

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Say What? The CFPB Unravels Credit Card Agreements

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has now added credit card agreements to its list of consumer-centered communication. The Bureau is asking for public comments about their prototype at

Here’s an explanation of their new focus from Marla Blow, Acting Assistant Director, Card Markets, CFPB. (more…)

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A Lot Depends Upon Plain Language – Like Streetcars

Cincinnati streetcar route mapThis recent article on a ballot issue facing Cincinnati taxpayers highlights just how much is at stake in the battle over plain language.

At issue is Cincinnati rail service, the subject of a 2011 ballot that experts say is far too broadly worded. If passed, the initiative could stop not only the streetcar plan currently on the table, but any city rail project until 2020.

Even legal experts couldn’t agree on a single interpretation of the ballot.

Regardless of whether the language was intentionally ambiguous or just poorly written, Cincinnati’s ballot issue highlights just how powerful words can be – itself an argument for plain language that works to clarify, rather than obscure.

How far does the streetcar ballot issue really go? Wording could prevent projects until 2020

Written by Carrie Whitaker and Jane Prendergast

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Even Federal Judges Prefer Plain Language

Even Federal Judges Prefer Plain Language In the federal world, one of the most common justifications for not using plain language is rooted in fear that plainly written documents won’t pass policy or legal review because they don’t sound “official” enough.

Finally, research proves that even judges and lawyers — people who are as “official” as you can get — prefer documents written in plain language.

A recent study of 295 federal and state judges (.PDF) across the U.S. showed that the majority preferred the plain writing version of a dull trial motion document to one using traditional legal writing.

This is wonderful ammunition for anyone trying to get a plain language document through legal or policy clearance. Documents don’t have to be written in legalese – even judges say so.

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Center for Plain Language (

Printed April 17, 2014


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