Since 2018 we have introduced a lot of changes to make our legal process more accessible. Building a culture of plain language was one of them. It cost us very little, but has made a big difference in how ordinary people use our service. In terms of cost versus benefit, it has been a massive bargain.
Plain Language Blog Articles
In 2006, I was working as a writer-editor in the regulatory shop of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for providing legal immigration benefits and services. Any one of our regulations could affect thousands to millions of people, many of whom didn’t speak English as a first language. So we had to get the language right.
As humans, we have a tricky relationship with ambiguity.
Used effectively, ambiguity (messages with more than one interpretation) can create clever, insightful, and amusing communication — making it a staple of advertising and comedy.
Used ineffectively, however, ambiguity’s multiple meanings can create confusing and misleading language that prevents readers from understanding what you mean.
We’ve all felt the frustration of filling out an online comment card that looks like it was created by someone who had never seen the website you want to comment on in the first place. “Have a Comment?” the site asks enthusiastically. You click on the digital Comment Card link. The page opens, and you scan for the options that most closely match your feedback. It’s not there.
As plain language experts, we often tell clients to use positive language. Even when explaining a negative situation, we recommend using as few negative words as possible. Many of us use this guidelines based on marketing strategies. However, we now have science to back us up.
The first time I heard a guy in a suit say, “We need to open the kimono” I screamed like a genteel Victorian and averted my eyes. I hadn’t heard this bit of business jargon before and was expecting the worst. Apparently, this colorful phrase simply means to “reveal information.” Phew. No kimonos were literally opened. (Look. It’s fun to use “literally” accurately.)
I happen to love interesting and unusual phrases.