National Plain English Day 12/10/10—Celebrate or Commiserate?

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Tomorrow is National Plain English Day—clearly a day that I should mark on my calendar since I have devoted my career to promoting and writing plain English. However, I won’t be popping open champagne—more likely I’ll note it with a moment of reflection. I’m skipping the champagne because the Plain English movement hasn’t come far enough in 40 years. Rather than being the norm, it is still a refreshing and scarce practice in business and government. After taking hold in the late ’70s with a few watershed events, the movement languished during the ’90s and re-rooted just this year with the US Congress passing the federal Plain Writing Act of 2010. While the common sense appeal of being easily understood seems incontrovertible, the reality is that government and business have a love/hate relationship with clarity.

Helping consumers understand the actual value of a purchase can be a point of competitive advantage in a crowded, noisy marketplace, and companies who have embraced plain English are often motivated by this fact. However, other companies and industries found that traps hidden in fine print allowed them to lure customers who would have otherwise spurned them if they had fully understood the fees, procedures and loopholes in their transactions. Currently, the pendulum has swung back in favor of the consumer with government calling for greater transparency and suggesting plain English as a tactic for achieving it.

I think the moral of the tale is that the Golden Rule can be preached and taught, but where profit is a primary motivation, it must also be enforced. Relying on companies to speak plainly and clearly is wishful thinking—the more complicated the product or service, the more companies will have to be nudged, prodded and mandated to use plain English. Hiding behind jargon, convoluted calculations and overwhelming amounts of information is just too seductive for most companies to resist. Achieving clarity is hard work and readily reveals the flaws and strengths of the underlying offering. Companies who practice plain English can only do so when they are confident that their product or service will stand up to scrutiny.

Milestones in the Plain English movement
1974 – U.S. Pension Reform Act required all material to be in plain language.
1977 – New York became the first state to require business contracts written in plain language.
1978 – The National Institute of Education began the Document Design Project for research, training and practical assistance for documents.
1979 – President Carter signed Executive Order 12174, which required agencies to reduce forms and to keep them as simple as possible.
1980 – New York Executive Order was issued for all state agencies to write in plain language.
1981 – President Reagan signed Executive Order 12291, which rescinded both EO 12044 and EO 12174.
1983 – California mandated all state documents to be written in plain language.
1998 – Securities and Exchange Commission adopted the Plain English Rule (Securities Act Rule 421 [d]), which required cover pages, summaries and risk factors sections of prospectuses to be in plain English, beginning October 1, 1998.
1998 – President Clinton signed an Executive Memorandum requiring plain language in all new government documents
2003 – Federal Rule 23(c)(2) required, for the first time, that class settlement notices “must concisely and clearly state in plain, easily understood language” certain information about the nature and terms of a class action and how it might affect potential class members’ rights.
2010 – US Congress passes HR 946 “the Plain Writing Act of 2010”.

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