Exploring Global Engineering Communications through Connexions

ConnexionsEngineers around the world are working together, sharing information and collaborating on projects. But how well are they communicating or using plain language? Differences in language, culture and social customs all have an impact on how we communicate.

Connexions, an international communications journal, is dedicating a special issue to international engineering communication. (more…)

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Who makes the grade? Plain language report cards for federal agencies

USDA Gets an “A;” VA Gets an “F” on First Plain Writing Act Report Card Released Today by the Center for Plain Language

Rep. Braley and the Center for Plain Language Release Report Card Grades at Telephone News Briefing


Washington, DC – The U.S. Department of Agriculture received an “A” and the Veterans’ Administration received an “F” on the first Plain Writing Act Report Card released today by the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit organization dedicated to clear communication in government, business, non-profits, and universities. (more…)

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Is the fine print just getting longer? Eyewitness News

Fine print: The devil is in the details. Agreements are getting longer – to comply with law

Broadcast March 9, 2012

“Why are agreements and contracts getting longer?

One reason: The same reason some coffee shop chains put CAUTION: VERY HOT on their foam coffee cups.

Companies are saying they’re required, by law, to include more and more information each day. Things like privacy policies. Warnings for a phone, gadget, or appliance on how you should and shouldn’t use it.

Because of this, the Center for Plain Language is calling on government agencies and businesses to make agreements understandable and readable. Each year it puts out a list of the most confusing documents out there, from health insurance forms to software agreements and car seat installations.
“Nobody’s going to read that and understand it without spending days or weeks trying to decipher it,” said the Center’s Henry Maury. 

A company called Transparency Labs has done a study, and found less than 1 in 10,000 Americans actually reads the fine print, and it costs the average household up to $3,000 a year in fees and charges.”

By Bill Tomison with Susan Hogan

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What’s in the President’s hand?

President Barack Obama holds up a proposed mortgage application form

President Barack Obama holds up a proposed mortgage application form as he speaks at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. (Credit: AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

If you’ve ever bought a house, you probably remember the pages and pages of documents you signed. You probably wished they could be clearer and make more sense.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) thinks these forms can be clearer, too. They’ve been working on a new standard for mortgage disclosures — those forms that summarize the costs of a home loan.

The CFPB project, Know Before You Owe, has collected input from thousands of people in both in-person usability testing and through online comments collected on their web site.

In a story on CBS News, we found a photo of President Obama holding a version of the proposed form. Here’s what CBS News reported about the President’s comments:

“The president recalled his and First Lady Michelle Obama’s experience buying their first home together – a process he described, humorously, as so complicated that the two of them would end up looking through the forms and asking “what does this phrase mean?”

“And that’s, you know, for two trained lawyers,” he laughed.

He held up a one-page mock-up of what he wants such forms to look like in the future, and pointed to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) as a means to achieving that end. …

The goal, he said, was to make things “simple, not complicated,” to protect consumers from getting “cheated.”

“Terms are clear. Fees are transparent,” he said.”

That’s plain language at work!

Obama unveils mortgage refinancing plan by Lucy Madison, CBS News Political Hotsheet, February 1, 2012

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Braley Tackles Regulations

When the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was passed, regulations were not included as part of the Act. That is, the federal government now has to write information that explain benefits and services in plain language, but regulations were omitted. But Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who sponsored the PWA, is back at it. He has introduced Plain Regulations Act (H.R. 3786), to require that regulations be written in plain language.

Why is this another important law?

Small businesses, in particular, waste millions of dollars hiring attorneys or trying to figure out themselves how to comply with regulations they don’t understand. Such overly complex and incomprehensible rules add to an inability to comply.

Braley wants to change that.  As he says:

“Whether you like or loathe government regulations, I think everyone can agree that when ne exists it should be written as clearly as possible.  Sadly, gobbledygook dominates the regulations issued by government agencies, making it almost impossible for small businesses to understand the rules of the road.

“The Plain Regulations Act would simplify rules, saving small businesses time and freeing up money that can be better used investing in growing the business and creating jobs.

“Simplifying regulations won’t eliminate the costs of compliance, but it will reduce them.  And it’s an easy way to save small businesses money that can quickly attract bipartisan support.”

If you’re not convinced, imagine figuring out what this regulation from the construction industry means:

“On or after July 6, 2010, all renovations must be performed in accordance with the work practice standards in §745.85 and the associated recordkeeping requirements in §745.86(b)(1) and (b)(6) in target housing or child-occupied facilities, unless the renovation qualifies for the exception identified in §745.82(a)” with the sub-exception that “emergency renovations are not exempt from the cleaning requirements of §745.85(a)(5), which must be performed by certified renovators or individuals trained in accordance with §745.90(b)(2), the cleaning verification requirements of §745.85(b), which must be performed by certified renovators, and the recordkeeping requirements of §745.86(b)(6) and (b)(7).”

That gave me a headache.

Watch for opportunities to comment on the new bill. Be ready to write/phone/email your Congress people. Share this news with all small businesses. And let Rep. Braley know you appreciate all his efforts on our behalf.

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Plain language protects consumers

A recent review of land leases underscores the way language can obscure rather than clarify: in a review of 11,000 land leases from gas and oil companies, the New York Times found the majority had terms decidedly unfavorable to landowners.

Many leases granted companies broad permission to clear trees and build roads, while holding them harmless for damage repair. Incredibly, a majority of leases also permitted extensions without landowner approval. 

So why do people sign documents with such unfavorable terms? Because they don’t understand them.

Just as with credit agreements and mortgages, people often sign documents based on what they hear from the marketing team, versus what’s actually in the contract.

While it’s our job as consumers to read the fine print, companies shouldn’t be able to bury unfavorable terms in jargon and legalese designed to trick consumers into signing documents not in their best interest.

With any luck, plain language reform will soon extend to lease agreements, too.  

 Learning Too Late of the Perils in Gas Well Leases


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Plain Language = Web Usability

web usability

There’s a huge amount of overlap between plain language and web usability guidelines. On the web, content and functionality drive the success of your site, and plain language is critical to both. 

If making your web site usable and accessible isn’t enough of an incentive, the latest research from usability guru Jakob Nielsen confirms that plain language is critical to the bottom line, too – users won’t buy products they can’t find or get clear information about.

In Nielsen’s latest round of testing, more than half of the web site failures he observed were caused by poorly written content.  If your web site is failing, customers aren’t buying your products or message. They also consume your time and resources when they need to call to complete a transaction or clarify a point.

On the web, as elsewhere, organizing for your readers; providing explicit navigation directions; and using clear, simple language work best: both for your company and your customers.

Jakob Nielsen “E-Commerce Usability: Bad Content Kills Sales” 

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First WonderMark Award Submission: NY City Election Ballot


For Release: October 14, 2010
Contact: Sheri Singer

WonderMark Awards Note the Use of Unclear Language

Silver Spring, MD – With the November mid-term elections just a few days away, the Center for Plain Language has received its first WonderMark Award submission—the New York City 2010 ballot. The WonderMark Award is given to documents that contain very unclear, confusing language.

Election advocates, journalists and plain language experts have raised questions about the ballot’s challenging design and instructions.   Some are concerned that the confusing ballot might make it difficult for some voters to mark their ballots accurately. Even if it is a small problem, this could be significant in a close election.

“As we learned in the 2000 presidential election, if voters are confused about how to vote, the election might not reflect the true winning candidate,” said Whitney Quesenbery, a member of the Center’s Board of Directors. “The ballot has inaccurate instructions combined with a design that is just terrible. We know how to do this better.”

According to the Center, the layout of the ballot makes it hard to see which oval to mark because the one nearest a candidate’s name is often the wrong one. The design is messy, the print is too small, and the instructions are in the wrong place, and they are hard to see.

The WonderMark Awards are part of the Center’s ClearMark Awards to recognize good (ClearMark) and unclear (WonderMark) use of language in documents and websites in both the private and public sectors.

“Some language is so bad that it may cause harm which is the case with the New York City ballot,” said Annetta Cheek, PhD, Chair, Board of Directors, the Center for Plain Language.

Nominations for the 2011 ClearMark Awards close on January 21, 2011.  Anyone who has worked on, read, or knows of exceptionally clear or unclear language use in nonprofits/foundations/associations, government (federal, state, local), and corporate America is encouraged to submit an entry. Submissions may be submitted by the author, office or organization that originated the entry; or even a reader or a user.

Easy-to-fill-out nomination forms are at Recipients will be announced at the second annual ClearMark Awards ceremony in April 28, 2011 at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C.

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About the Center for Plain Language

The Center for Plain Language is a D.C.-based Center is a nonprofit organization that wants government and business documents to be clear and understandable. The Center supports those who use plain language, trains those who should use plain language, and urges people to demand plain language in all the documents they receive, read, and use.

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ABC Reports Plain Writing Act

Obama signs the ActOne of the most exciting events surrounding all the media attention to the new Plain Writing Act is ABC news coverage mentioning the Center for Plain Language.

We have been building our reputation as educators and advocates for plain language for a few years, but the passage of this Act and the attention the Center is getting reaffirms that the Center is a vital organization leading the way to help citizens understand their rights for clear information. But now that the Act has passed, what’s next? (more…)

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Center for Plain Language Announces that President Obama Has Signed the Plain Writing of Act of 2010


For Release: October 14, 2010
Contact: Sheri Singer

Act requires federal government to write documents in simple language

Silver Spring, MD – As a long-time advocate for plain writing, the Center for Plain Language ( is delighted to announce that President Obama has signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The bill requires the federal government to write documents, such as tax returns, federal college aid applications, and Veterans Administration forms in simple language. The Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March and the Senate in September.

“This is a triumphant moment for all those who support plain language use,” said Annetta Cheek, PhD, Chair, Board of Directors, the Center for Plain Language. “The Act defines plain writing as writing that the audience can understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing.”

The Center is grateful to Rep. Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Senator Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii) for their leadership in getting the Act passed.

“The Plain Writing Act requires a simple change to business-as-usual that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever filled out a tax return or received a government document,” said Representative Braley. “This bill shows what bipartisanship can accomplish when we put aside our differences and work together for the common good. Writing government documents in plain language will increase government accountability and will save Americans time and money. Plain, straightforward language makes it easy for taxpayers to understand what the federal government is doing and what services it is offering.”

The Act improves the effectiveness and accountability of Federal government by promoting clear government communication that the public can understand and use.

“Americans lose time and money because government instructions, forms, and other documents are too complicated,” said Senator Akaka. “The Plain Writing Act requires agencies to write documents which are clear, well organized, and understandable, leading to fewer customer service questions and increased compliance, making the government more efficient.”

The Center for Plain Language is a nonprofit organization comprised of individuals who encourage the use of clear, concise language in business and government.
“With so many new laws and regulations coming out of Washington, this Act is vital to making government serve the American people. It is a huge step forward,” said John Spotila, Chief Executive Officer of R3i Solutions, a Center board member and former Administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. “Working together from start to finish will continue to be the key to our success.”

For more information about the Center’s work or mission, or to join or support the Center, go to

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Example #1: Medicare Fraud Letter:

Example #2: FDA drug warning label:

Example #3: IRS form

About the Center for Plain Language

The Center for Plain Language has long supported the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The D.C.-based Center is a nonprofit organization that wants government and business documents to be clear and understandable. The Center supports those who use plain language, trains those who should use plain language, and urges people to demand plain language in all the documents they receive, read, and use.

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Center for Plain Language (

Printed April 18, 2014


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