The Simplified blog
PLAIN2009 gives a boost to plain language around the worldFrances Gordon |
23 October 2009 |
Consumer Protection Bill signed into law – plain language now obligatory in consumer documentsFrances Gordon |
11 May 2009 |
April 2009 saw the president of South Africa, President Kgalema Mohlante, signing the Consumer Protection Bill into law. This ushers in a new era of rights for the consumer.
The new Consumer Protection Act has lofty ambitions. According to the consumer site, ‘Get Closure!
’ the Act aims to ‘improve protection for consumers against unfair business practices; increase fairness and equality among consumers; give consumers the information they need to make good choices and to know what their rights are; give consumers a better way to get compensation if things do go wrong; and enforce the new rules’.
We have yet to see how industry will take up large-scale implementation of this Act (see blog below for the definition of plain language given in the Act). After all, the National Consumer Commission is only planned to be established 12 months from the date of signing the Bill, and there is considerable work to be done after that.
However, in the field of plain language, here are some things that we can expect to see:
More guidelines on how to tell whether a document is in plain language. Simplified has been performing plain-language audits in anticipation of these guidelines for quite some time.
More templates such as the policy summaries that Zimele has launched in the long-term insurance industry. Although a step in the right direction, these documents need improvements if they are to carry out the intentions of plain language.
More user testing. A pitfall of many plain-language documents is that they have not been tested with the people who use them. In South Africa, we cannot blindly follow international norms, but must test our documents and develop local knowledge about how to apply plain language.
More interest in which language to use for which types of documents. We cannot assume that plain English or plain Afrikaans is plain language.
We hope that, in implementing plain-language laws, industry realises that plain language is a respected discipline and profession. It is not something that a copywriter or a lawyer can do, without proper training.
Product complexity considered greatest barrier to success for life insurers Frances Gordon |
22 June 2008 |
36% of the insurance companies taking part in a recent Deloitte online poll (see reference below) believed that product complexity is the factor that most often leads to lack of success.
20% said it was unappealing features and benefits, 20% cited uncompetitive pricing, 13% insufficient product compensation, and 11% lack of speed-to-market.
What contributes to complexity?
When companies where asked what contributes to product complexity:
35% said it was evolving customer needs and product features
19% said it was distribution channel needs
18% said it was competition from other financial products
17% said it was impact of regulators
11% cited ‘other factors’.
Product design should be more modular
I believe there is not yet sufficient effort to design modular products – a set of simple products that can be combined together in different ways to meet individual customers' changing needs.
Reference: Cavaleros, G: ‘New Life Insurance Products are Key to Growth’, Cover, June 2008, volume 21, no. 1
Plain language in the Consumer Protection Bill (CPB) in South AfricaFrances Gordon |
10 June 2008 |
We have been doing a few presentations for CLASA (Corporate Lawyers' Association of South Africa) in Johannesburg, in which we’ve been discussing the definition of plain language in the Consumer Protection Bill.
It's very similar to the definition given in the National Credit Act (discussed here
). But here it is anyways - the whole 121-word sentence:
A notice, document or visual representation is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice, document or visual representation is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services, could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the document without undue effort, having regard to:
the context, comprehensiveness and consistency of the notice, document or visual representation
the organisation, form and style of the notice, document or visual representation
the vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the notice, document or visual representation
the use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding.
(Section 22, Consumer Protection Bill)
This definition merits careful study as it will have wide application in consumer documents. Plain language is mentioned in the Bill more than six times! The Bill is expected to come into effect next year.
Plain-language laws introduced in the US governmentFrances Gordon |
10 June 2008 |
In April, the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008 passed the House of Representatives on a 376-to-1 vote.
Its purpose is to 'improve the federal government's effectiveness and accountability to the public by promoting clear communication that the public can understand and use'. (Quoted in Clague, 2008
In general, this new piece of legislation has been well-received – after all, plain language has been supported by the US government in at least the past two presidencies. But plain-language practitioners are asking important questions about the Act:
Is its definition of plain language sufficiently accurate or precise?
Does it refer enough to the average reading level of Americans?
Is possible to legislate around plain language in an environment with such a strong tradition of small print and legalese?
Is it a problem that there do not seem to be repercussions for those who do not comply?
Clague, B: ‘The The Pitfalls of Plain-Language Legislation’, at River Cities’ Reader, 4 June 2008
Financial Times points to ambiguous language as one cause of merger deal woes Frances Gordon |
08 April 2008 |
According to the Financial Times (‘Lambasting lawyers’, The Lex Column, 26 March 2008), poor drafting is at least partly to blame for JPMorgan’s hassles in its Bear Stearns offer where it had to raise its bid fivefold, ‘citing supposedly lax wording in the merger agreement’ as the reason.
The FT points out ‘this is not the only mooted deal of recent vintage where quarrels have arisen over the wording of contracts..’. It remembers Cerberus Capital Management who was able to get out of a deal for over $6bn for a buyout of United Rentals - allegedly because of ‘the interpretation of two provisions’ in the agreement.
According to the FT, ‘it is too simplistic to blame sloppy drafting for disputes. Still there may be room for improvement in terms of updating the often-archaic language used in merger agreements, as firms such as Jones Day and contract specialist Kenneth Adams have called for. This would help in ensuring deal contracts make clearer the position of each party to a deal.'
So why aren’t all contracts in plain English if the risks of ambiguity are so great? It’s because no-one really believes that the contract will be tested: ‘Why kick up a fuss over some ambiguous wording when the deal seems certain to happen anyway?’ The point is that deal (and other) contracts need to protect against the unexpected – else, what’s the point of them at all?
There are also other reasons that the contracts are not made clear of course – an over-reliance on precedent being one.
Simplifying 'broadband'?Frances Gordon |
16 March 2008 |
Recently, a number of advertising billboards have proclaimed a new 'simplified' approach for one of South Africa's internet provider companies. The slogan reads 'broadband simplified'. The problem?
I asked a couple of people to define broadband - none of them could. Granted those I asked are techno-novices (even self-proclaimed technophobes) but aren't these the kind of people that this campaign is targeted at?
Recommended reading: 'Writing at Work' by Neil JamesFrances Gordon |
17 February 2008 |
I finally put time aside to read Neil James's 'Writing at Work - how to write clearly, effectively and professionally' (Allen & Unwin, 2007).
Neil James is a well-known Australian plain-language writer. What's unique about his book is that it gives the theory as well as the 'how to'. So instead of simply telling you to write for your readers, it explains how things moved from the audience focus of classical rhetoric to headings such as 'Local Development Framework Core Strategy Sustainability Appraisal Scoping Report' (page 21).
I also like 'Writing at Work' because it fits in very well with the Simplified approach to writing. In fact, if you've been on a Simplified course, you'll find 'Writing at Work' a useful supplement. It gives a lot more detail on elements such as brainstorming and user testing as well as many real-world examples.
Before and after plain language exampleFrances Gordon |
17 February 2008 |
We've updated our before-and-after section - click here
for some interesting new examples.
And just in is this exceptional example from Candice:
The bewildering before:
Notwithstanding the generality of the aforegoing, the liability of the Company to make payouts of all and any amounts under this agreement shall be contingent upon the strict observance and fulfillment by the Applicant of the provisions of this agreement insofar as they relate to anything to be done or complied with by the Applicant.
And the exceptionally succint after:
You must comply with all terms of this agreement before we will pay out any amounts.
From the Plain English Campaign's 'hall of shame'Frances Gordon |
26 December 2007 |
Each year, the Plain English Campaign publishes examples of gobbledegook. Here are two from the 2007 'hall of shame' (Source
: BBC News, 11 December 2007):
BAA sign at Gatwick airport:
Original: "Passenger shoe repatriation area only"
Plain English Campaign translation: Get your shoes back here.
BAA removed the sign on Monday and gave this statement: "We are in the business of repatriation at Gatwick Airport, admittedly more often through arriving passengers than repatriating shoes."
Terms and conditions on Fastway Courier website:
Original: "The Carrier shall not be liable for injury or damage to or destruction or loss of the Goods or any other property arising out of or incidental to or in connection with or occurring during the provision of the Services or for the mis-delivery or non-delivery of the Goods and whether or not caused or contributed to by the default (including negligence) of the Carrier or any agent, servant or officer of the Carrier or any other person entitled to the benefit of these conditions."
Plain English Campaign translation: If anything happens, it's not our fault.
I find rewrites like the one above are not sufficiently specific.
Can you bear the commas (in the Second Amendment)?Frances Gordon |
25 December 2007 |
Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to consider District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down Washington’s strict gun ordinance as a violation of the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms.”
Why? At first glance, it’s the fault of the following three little commas:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The comma clash is complicated. To simplify it, we can ask whether the second comma completely (syntactically and semantically) divides the sentence into two. If it does, ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed’, and therefore an anti-gun ordinance would be contrary to this Amendment.
And, from the other corner, is the view that the clauses are more closely related, so that the right of the people to keep and bear Arms relates only to a well-regulated Militia and not to the rights of each citizen.
A recent post on Language Log
(Liberman, 2007) poses the question more precisely (and technically): ‘The question is, to what extent does the meaning of the adjunctive clause contextually restrict the interpretation of the words right
in the main clause? (And perhaps the meaning of the phrase bear arms
There is even one interpretation given by a group of ‘anti-gun academics’ (Freedman, 2007
) in a 2001 case who claimed a meaning of: “a well-regulated militia ... shall not be infringed”.
The commas don’t shed much light. For one thing, so chaotic was punctuation usage in the day when this sentence was written that punctuation was not included in interpretation of law. So the commas are out. Freedman therefore removes them to parse the sentence grammatically.
He finds that ‘the founders — most of whom were classically educated — would have recognized this rhetorical device as the “ablative absolute” of Latin prose, which would point to a close link between the two parts of the sentence'. Therefore, ‘a well-regulated militia’ is to be interpreted as part of the subject of what shall not be infringed.
But, according to a Liberman, things are far fuzzier: most interpretations (except for the last one) agree that the full clause is an ‘absolute clause’ that’s similar to a clause that begins with ‘because’. Liberman gives a recast of:
Because (or since, or in view of the fact that) a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
He concludes that ‘the syntax doesn't decide [the meaning] either’. The syntax is the same, just the interpretation is different.
So.. rather than interpretation according to modern grammar or punctuation or even interpretation according to historical language usage, we are left with one option: historical intention. In the context in which they drafted the second amendment, did the drafters intend to give a right to bear arms for purposes other than state-run militias?
Grammar rulesFrances Gordon |
04 December 2007 |
Grammar rules (understand before you apply)
Grammar is essential, but most of us know more about grammar subconsciously than we do consciously.
Ironically, the problems that are most difficult to solve are often the ones caused by over-applying a grammar rule, rather than the ones caused by forgetting one.
Lately I’ve come across lots of confusion about subordinate clauses. Take, for example, the old favourite: ‘you can’t start a sentence with because’. In a way that’s true. The phrase:
Because Mr Holmes solved the case
is not a sentence. It’s what is called a subordinate clause. It needs a main clause to make it a sentence. So if I add a main clause such as ‘we could all go home’, I get:
Because Mr Holmes solved the case, we could all go home.
Voila – a perfectly fine sentence, even though the first word is ‘because’. Think of ‘We could all go home because Mr Holmes solved the case’ – it’s the same thing.
To revise a basic grammar rule: To create a sentence, all you need is one independent clause: this is comprised of a subject and a predicate. Everything else is extra. ‘It is as if a short sentence serves as nucleus in a long sentence,’ says Virginia Tufte (Tufte, 2006 – see below for full reference).
Ruling grammarFrances Gordon |
04 December 2007 |
Who rules grammar anyway?
Admittedly, these are very weird grammar lessons: Fforde reveals various ‘grammasites’, such as Nounfish who look like angler fishes, but have definite articles instead of lights sticking out of their heads and who ‘swim the outer banks of the Text Sea, hoping to attract and devour stray nouns eager to start an embryonic sentence’.
Then you get bookworms who ‘take words and expel alternative meanings like a hot radiator… without them words would have one meaning, and meanings would have one word…' .
And then there are Verbisoids. ‘Once the Verbisoid extracts the verb from a sentence it generally collapses; do that once too often and the whole narrative falls apart…’
Converbilators create verbs out of nouns… ‘mostly by appending ize or ise but sometimes just by a direct conversion, such as knife, lunch and question’.
As the character notes, 'these are ‘necessary – but can’t be allowed to get out of hand’.
Grammar rules Frances Gordon |
04 December 2007 |
Grammar rules (OK)
Virginia Tufte is Edward Tufte’s wife and she does for syntax what he does for information design. She deconstructs grammar and looks at it functionally, trying to give the principles and rules that result in language sounding poetic or prosaic or elegant or clumsy or cynical or rude, or however we want it to sound.
These days it’s fashionable to talk about 'good' or 'bad' or meaningful or wasteful words (what cliché really irritates you?), but to me, what holds the words together is far more interesting. If you agree, try 'Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style’
by Virginia Tufte, Graphics Press LLC, 2006.
Information design gives alternate perspectivesFrances Gordon |
17 September 2007 |
Good writing may make information so much more accessible. But information design can make it so much richer.
Click here for some amazing ways to visualise information from Joy Division tracks to diseases... A research project at Columbia University has mapped the overlap between 161 different diseases by studying epidemiological data from 1.5 million patients. The results show how design can become analysis. Read about the project in this article in Technology Review, July 2007.
Thanks to Garth for sending me the link to this sum-up article in Smashing Magazine, August 2007.
The Center for Plain language tells us what a plain language expert isFrances Gordon |
17 September 2007 |
The website of the 'Center for Plain Language' is a great resource for all Simplifiers out there.
The authors ask the question: What is a plain language expert? Their answer is interesting as it shows how multi-disciplinary plain language has become.
Read the article by clicking here.
Scottish bank puts in place plan to better speak to youth about financial servicesFrances Gordon |
16 September 2007 |
In South Africa, we often talk about how alienated ordinary consumers are from financial services. From a recent study done in Scotland, you can see that this is also the case elsewhere. And a youth group and a large bank is trying to tackle the problem head on.
Here is the 10-point plan put together by Lloyds TSB Scotland and Young Scot as part of a three-year agreement to tackle the issue of young people and financial capability.
1 Working with young people to combat complicated financial jargon.
2 Working with a group of young volunteers to develop up to 12 podcasts explaining banking process and key products.
3 Developing training input for Lloyds TSB Scotland staff, involving young people as trainers.
4 Piloting the training and support of specialist "youth advisers" in Lloyds TSB Scotland branches.
5 Looking at the feasibility of developing a "youth friendly" bank charter mark that will identify branches as being Young Scot approved.
6 Working to introduce, publish and promote Young Scot pass cards as proof of identity for opening bank accounts.
7 Identifying and promoting branches with enhanced opening hours to suit young people.
8 Developing feasibility proposal for a "staggered" bank account designed in partnership with young people.
9 Offering information on money, finance, training and work, housing, benefits and general information on financial capability through the Young Scot InfoLine and a web services for people aged 12 to 26.
10 Establishing a youth advisory panel available to bank representatives to advise on services for young people.
Source: 'Help us understand,' youngsters tell banks,by Rosemary Gallagher,
The Scotsman, 15 September 2007
The LOA jargon busterFrances Gordon |
21 August 2007 |
The Life Offices' Assocation (LOA) has published a 'jargon buster' of terms used in insurance as well as medical terms.
The good? The jargon buster is in a wiki format, and the LOA invites suggestions and edits. According to an article in ITInews, a committee will evaluate all feedback given on the site.
This is an important step towards building consistency in the industry - although some of the definitions throw up many issues and I'm sure will generate lots of healthy debate.
The not-so-good? The jargon buster seems more for those involved in the industry than the layperson. For example, the definition for 'waiting period' uses the term 'anti-selection' which would not be understood by the average policyholder.
Also, I felt some of the entries are very long: I would prefer a short definition before the more conceptual explanations and examples.
Derrida est vivant: An 'open letter' from the PresidentFrances Gordon |
12 August 2007 |
The South African President’s open letters show his willingness to be accessible to all South Africans. If only I could understand what they say. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Facts, fiction and mini-skirts
’, the open letter published on ANC Today
on 27 July 2007.
‘…for those among us who see themselves as agents of progressive change, complete and accurate knowledge, representing accurate understanding of objective reality, liberated from prejudice, false assumptions and propaganda, becomes an imperative and inalienable condition for the untrammelled but responsible exercise of the hard-won right to self-determination.
We have the possibility and latitude and the necessity to speak thus because we live during our own age of revolution. Exactly because it is such an age, all of us face the demand to understand objective reality accurately and objectively, to enable the revolution to decide on the correct strategy, tactics and operations.
In this situation of an inevitable contest about the future of our country, information, facts, the truth, themselves become an area of contestation. The truth manifests itself as truths. Opponents of change see it as their obligatory task to falsify reality, in their interest. The imperative to understand the critical difference, and in some instances the contradiction, between essence and phenomenon becomes ever-more pressing.’
The letters goes on to use the story of the mini-skirt and a quote from Dickens to discuss post-modernity. In the midst of the discussion is this somewhat baffling sentence: ‘Post-modernism, represented as enhanced human capacity to understand objective reality, dictates that, even out of self-respect, we must see and speak about the unseen world above and beyond the hem of the short skirt sewed in the clothing factory.’
My problem is that I do not have a clear concept of what the letter says. Is it an accusation? Of the opposition or of the media? A discussion? It seems to deal with issues of the press 'twisting the truth'. These are important issues. I would have preferred it if they were explained in a straightforward manner.
Communication teams are often, but not always, supporters of plain language. Frances Gordon |
06 August 2007 |
Here are three objections to plain language that I’ve recently come across in Communications departments. I’ll give a response to each one.
Objection number one: Just tell them what they want to know
This objection goes like this: ‘Customers don’t want to hear bad news. Let’s just tell them what they want to hear. Leave the stuff about extra charges or cancellation clauses for the small print at the bottom of the page.’
A response: Telling customers what they need to know is just as important as telling them what they want to know. If customers have not understood what you promised them upfront, they will not be happy with what they get further down the line.
Objection number two: If customers understand, they’ll have questions
The second objection is about a fear of being understood: ‘Customers do not understand their products. If we give them information in plain language, they may want to find out even more. Answering their questions will cost us too much money in call-centre time.’
A response: When it’s too expensive to help people understand what they are buying from you, then there is a problem – either with the product or the service. Think of the questions as an investment in customer retention – and in helping the customer become more self-reliant in the future.
Objection number three: Customers are too lazy to read anyways
We hear this objection often and it’s one that I find particularly concerning: ‘We don’t believe in writing in plain language. No-one bothers to read what we write anyways so why should we make the effort?’
Underneath this objection lies a view of the customer as ‘lazy’ or even ‘stupid’. If customers are not reading your writing, then you must find out why not. It may be because you’ve been communicating badly for years, and it’ll take time to change customers’ behavior. There may be problems that are easier to solve, for example too few summaries and no contents pages. What you can be sure of though is that it’s fruitless to blame the customer.
Cheers for now,
Faulkner, Hemingway, Lincoln and Lang... insults in plain languageFrances Gordon |
27 July 2007 |
Fellow simplifier, Amanda, reminded me of the repartee between Hemingway and Faulkner:
Faulkner said of Hemingway: "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary".
The 'king of the short sentence' didn't miss a beat in his response: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?".
Amanda also emailed me some other great plain-language-related insults:
"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." Abraham Lincoln
"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts ... for support rather than illumination."
Plain language in the pressFrances Gordon |
10 July 2007 |
The Business Day published an article about plain language
which looked at the new obligations on some financial services companies to write to consumers in plain language.
SAFM's 'Word of Mouth' programme last Sunday afternoon included a segment on plain language. John Orr was interested in finding out more about the process of writing plainly.
Cheers for now,
New articles: sustainability strategies and the legal framework of plain language Frances Gordon |
10 July 2007 |
It's been a busy time for Simplified.
Last month we sponsored two conferences related to plain language in financial services. One focused on consumer credit and protection and was held at the FNB Conference Centre in Sandton; the other dealt with the education and simplification of financial products - this was held down the road from us at the Park Hyatt in Rosebank.
We have posted articles comprising the presentations we gave here
(in the articles section of this site).
The first article looks at to start and sustain plain language in large organisations. We look at what's important as well as possible barriers and how to overcome them.
The second article outlines the legal framework for plain language in financial services. It outlines the local and international contexts.
I hope you enjoy reading them,
Enter your rewrite for the plain-language competition Frances Gordon |
07 June 2007 |
Good afternoon to everyone, and especially to the delegates of the Consumer Credit and Protection conference, held in Sandton on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Candice and I enjoyed giving our plain-language workshop, and we hope that you now feel better equipped to implement plain language in your organisations. Always remember the most basic principle - write for your readers. And don't forget to enjoy lots of full stops!
We have had a handful of entries to our Simplified competition, which I'll start posting below. You can either email yours to me direct, or post it by clicking 'add a comment' below.
Plain-language law rewrite project wins Law Reform AwardFrances Gordon |
20 May 2007 |
A four-year project to simplify the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, used in federal trial courts, has been announced as the Burton Award's 2007 “Reform in Law” winner.
This is a prestigious awards programme, run together with the Library of Congress and the Law Library of Congress.
The clarified version is scheduled to take effect in December, 2007.
Here is an example of how the laws have been rewritten:
Old: “When two or more statements are made in the alternative and one of them if made independently would be sufficient, the pleading is not made insufficient by the insufficiency of one or more of the alternative statements.”
New: “If a party makes alternative statements, the pleading is sufficient if any one of them is sufficient.”
Old: There shall be one form of action to be known as “civil action”.
New: There is one form of action - the civil action.
Are sentences written in the passive voice really that bad?Frances Gordon |
04 May 2007 |
A section about ‘the active voice’ can be found in most writing courses (including our own).
From Strunk & White to the Plain English Campaign, the passive voice has been maligned, accused of concealing responsibilities, of manipulating the reader with small print. The passive voice is seen as nothing other than evil – wrong, wrong, wrong!
But is it? Are sentences written in the passive voice really that bad? (Or should I rather ask: Are sentences that people write in the passive voice really that bad?)
They are, when used for the express purpose to leave out important detail. ‘You will be refunded’, for example, is problematic, because in many cases, I would like to know who will refund me.
But they're not, when used to highlight what the writer feels to be important. Sometimes the passive voice can even signal a change of meaning.
This was one of the topics of conversation on the 1 May public holiday, when I was fortunate enough to be invited to lunch with a very well-respected lawyer and plain-language practitioner from Canada. We were chatting about the passive voice (nothing quite like taking a leisurely lunch to chat about the passive voice) – and discussed that it’s actually quite useful sometimes…
‘My daughter was hit by a car.’ Here the passive voice signals that what I’m concerned about is my daughter.
‘That dumb idiot went into my daughter’ has a completely different meaning – now, I’m concerned with dealing with the dumb idiot who ran over my unfortunate daughter.
So what does this mean?
Well, despite understanding the possible applications of passive, we still train people to avoid it. We still believe that, in business writing, it’s often used for the wrong reasons. But, when we train it, the reason for avoiding it is emphasised, so the rule is meaningful and not arbitrary prescriptivism.
By the way, MS Word says that a whopping 23% of this post is written in the passive. Oops, make that a bit higher…
Plain language in South Africa's National Credit ActFrances Gordon |
09 April 2007 |
Lately, we've been talking a lot about how plain language is included in legislation in South Africa. Below is the definition from the National Credit Act. Even if your business isn't directly affected by this Act, we may find similar definitions in laws with broader application, such as the Consumer Act.
'A document is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the document is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal credit experience, could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the document without undue effort, having regard to:
the context, comprehensiveness and consistency of the document
the organisation, form and style of the document
the vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the text
the use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding.'
(National Credit Act)
This definition acknowledges that plain language – just like language – is complex. Words do not exist in isolation, but in the context of people using them for multiple and multi-faceted purposes.
This acknowledgement is important as the plain-language field has in the past run the risk of slipping into shallow prescriptivism. To me, the definition brings about at least three important conclusions:
Textual-based criteria are no longer enough; assessments of plain language must incorporate user testing.
Plain language looks not only at style, but also content ('comprehensiveness'). As a colleague of mine once said, ‘nonsense in plain language is still nonsense’.
Research must be a backbone to any plain-language programme.
On acronyms as WMDsFrances Gordon |
11 March 2007 |
An article in the February issue of Maverick
* says that the acronym is ‘often used as a tool, and it is not a tool of convenience – it is one of obfuscation, and one we should regard as deeply suspicious’.
The author, Richard Poplak, is mostly writing about the use of acronyms in military and politics. But his view also applies to the types of documents we all deal with everyday.
Take PMBs and MSAs and PINs and PUKs and HTML and the DPE and the DTI and the LOA and SAPS and ATBs and CPs and EPL and LR and NPOs and IP and another IP. They’re all common terms. Or are they?
Chances are, you won’t know all of them. That’s the problem with acronyms (and with jargon as a whole). It excludes those who are not familiar with that particular field. Which is fine… until you’re the one excluded.
When I encounter these WMDs (Weapons of Mass Deception of course), I’m always tempted to use the words of Inspector Fowler from Ben Elton’s ‘The Thin Blue Line’.
When faced with the police-speak of his colleagues, he asks for a translation ‘for those of us who do not speak complete twit’.
*’Acronyms? Simplicity my ASS!’ by Richard Poplak
Text message gymnasticsFrances Gordon |
11 March 2007 |
Because they’re short, you’d think text messages would be clear. But the truth is, a hurriedly-drafted text message can cause more confusion than clarity – as one of Jozi’s gyms found out last week.
At 9am last Monday (5 March), all members of the gym got this message on our cell phones:
Dear member. Please note that [name of gym] will be without electricity until 6am on the 13th March. Feel free to use any other Club or call [number]. We apologize for any inconvenience called.
Being a regular gym-goer (or at least someone who regularly intends to be a regular gym-goer), I phoned, much perturbed. Out of electricity for a week?
The receptionist had a speech prepared. It was obvious that she had answered many of these calls already. The intended message was that the gym would open one hour later than usual on 13 March. Apparently the queries kept coming in and the gym tried again by sending this out at midday:
Due to an electricity outage, the [name of gym] will open at 6am on the morning of 13 March…
Better, but still ambiguous: the message should have been more like:
On the 13 March, the gym will open at 6am instead of 5am. This is because of an electricity outage.
The lesson: before you send a text message to all your customers, test it with a few.
Business-writing training launched to the publicFrances Gordon |
02 March 2007 |
Simplified has run business-writing training in-house at companies for about three years. In May, we will open a course to individuals. The course will be held in Illovo, Johannesburg.
It's a two-day course, different from others because of it being more interactive, more practical, and more specialised. We train the process of writing (including planning and structuring a report) as well as plain-language writing skills (such as using strong verbs and varied sentence length).
You can read more about the training course here, or contact us for a course outline.
To design an annual reportFrances Gordon |
01 February 2007 |
Here's a quote from Paul Rand, as quoted in Edward Tufte's
'Readers of a report should be unaware of its 'design'. Rather, they should be enticed into reading it by interesting content, logical arranagement and simple presentation. The printed page should appear natural and authoritative, avoiding gimmicks which might get in the way of its documentary character.' (Paul Rand, 'Design' in Speaking Out on Annual Reports (New York, 1983)
Too often, when companes brief agencies on 'designing' their reports, they focus on the 'decoration' (photos, colours, even 'corporate identities') and not on the data - which is what the readers have picked up the report to see. To me, this shows disrespect or ignorance (or both) for the needs and wants of the readers.
Information design principles should be the anchor for designing a report.
Editing reportsFrances Gordon |
29 January 2007 |
Editors can be cruel... as shown in this Dilbert cartoon
Legalese in radio newsFrances Gordon |
25 January 2007 |
In Simplified news today, a major radio station in Johannesburg used legalese in its 6pm news broadcast.
When reporting on a failed court case, the news reader said something like 'the court judgement was that the accusation was null AND void AND of NO further force OR effect'.
Journalists usually use the fewest words possible, but this one seemed to choose the long-winded legalese to get across a sense of contempt for the accusation. She practically drawled the AND and the OR - as if to say, 'not only was it null, but also void, and there's more! It was of no further force, and if that's not enough, no effect either!'.
Other reasons for non-legal people using legal terms (that they seldom understand so usually use wrongly) are because they want to sound Serious (with a capital S).
Every month I get an emailed statement from my internet service provider which reads 'herewith your statement' in the subject line. We've still a way to go before people are secure enough in their language use to stop using archaic phrases that few understand.
Subjected to legaleseFrances Gordon |
11 January 2007 |
I'm taking a short break from contract rewriting to complain about 'subject to', and wonder why more people don't.
THe phrase is unclear. Look here:
’Payment can only be made subject to Company X’s practice at the time’.
So 'subject to' means 'depending on a condition'. But then read it without a break between 'made' and 'subject' (so subject becomes a noun) and you get a different meaning altogether.
And then it can mean 'liable to' as in the case of 'she is subject to being delayed by linguistic ambiguity'. And one should not confuse it with 'being subjected to' as in 'the reader is being subjected to too much information'.
But the last straw is further down in the contract I'm working on where I find:
’If the contract is subject to a cession, then the benefit will be paid to the owner’...
Which seems to use a different slant?
Let's stop with 'subject to'. No-one (normal) uses the term anyways,
Simplified features in Entrepreneur Frances Gordon |
05 January 2007 |
Welcome to 2007!
Simplified features in this month's Entrepreneur magazine. You can see the online version here.
Chrissie's blogFrances Gordon |
28 December 2006 |
Chrissie's blog gives insight into the amazing Chrissie Mayer, who founded the Plain English Campaign in the UK in 1979.
Chrissie's disdain of how government and companies use jargon and gobbledegook to 'communicate' is as strong as ever. Here in South Africa, we've got a lot to learn from her determination to make public information accessible to all.
However, her posts speak about more recent controversies: for instance, should kids be allowed to use 'text-speak' in exams? Chrissie's answer is a resounding No. More interesting is her reason for saying no. She does not fall into the trap of a 'what-in-the world-is-English-coming-to' stance; she does not go on about 'kids today' or sound the death knell for written language.
She simply says: 'Leave text speak to text messages'.
I agree. It's not that text speak is bad, unthinking or stupid. However, it is not an effective means of communication for school literary essays. It is wrong on the grounds of 'appropriateness', rather than those of 'politeness' or 'tradition'.
Read 'The Fight for English' by David CrystalFrances Gordon |
28 December 2006 |
Everyman's favourite linguist, David Crystal, tells us to say no to the kind of zero tolerance advocated (dictated) by books such as Lynne Truss's bestseller 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves'.
I am not going to put forward all his arguments here, but I encourage all readers who love the English language to buy this book and read it cover to cover. It's a pleasurable experience. Crystal writes with warmth, clarity and intelligence. He is among the most studied and respected linguists in the world. Most of his arguments are put forward logically and objectively.
But my favourite parts of the book are those where Crystal puts down his gentle arguments and gets on his soapbox. When reading passages like the one below, I admit that my arm involantarily lifted into a clenched-fist 'yeesssss' gesture:
'...when I see people still being conned - made to feel threatened or inferior because a linguistically brainwashed boss or radio listener or teacher threatens all hell if infinitives are split or prepositions ended, then I get cross. And when I see the same rubbish being promulgated 250 years on - still, in this day and age - in books written by well-intentioned people who say they care about the language while cheerfully admitting to not having any qualifications at all to talk about it, then I get very cross. And when I see their books being bought by millions, I am amazed at the way the con still has the power to succeed.' (Page, 122)
Enough quoted. Please read: 'The Fight for English, How language pundits ate, shot and left', David Crystal, 2006
Why should I read this article? Because we wrote it.Frances Gordon |
27 November 2006 |
Business writing gets existential sometimes. One of my pet peeves is when documents refer to the reader as 'I' and then as 'you', and just three lines later the people who wrote the article are 'we', general people out there are 'you', and who knows who 'one' is.
Thankfully, there is a Simpsons episode which illustrates the point.
Bart is talking to a robot:
Robot: (electronic intonation) Who is the only one who can stop forest fires?
Bart: (examines response panel, which has two buttons, marked "you" and "me", and presses "you")
Robot: (electronic intonation) "You pressed YOU, meaning me. This is incorrect. You should have pressed ME, meaning you."
There are lots of other fabulous linguistic jokes at this linguistic humor page found through languagelog.
How do you say 'Plain English' in Seffrikan?Frances Gordon |
19 November 2006 |
We all know what plain language is... short sentences, the active voice, bullet points, everyday words, no jargon... the same principles are quoted by plain language practitioners around the world. So that's all there is to it, right?
Wrong. The truth is that the principles are not enough. To write effectively for a target audience, guess what? You need to have intimate knowledge of that target audience.
I have written business communications for various companies around the world, including in the UK, US, around Europe and the Middle East. Every country has its own 'take' on how to communicate. The principles apply, but there are subtle differences.
If I were writing for a SA audience, I would write differently to if I were writing for a UK audience. Some examples?
- In SA, most readers are probably L2 English speakers; this changes the way one has to write for them. For example, in the UK, I may feel comfortable using a complex verb tense whereas for South Africans, one would rather go with a slightly more difficult word than risk ambiguity in the tense.
- I would pay more attention to brevity for SA readers.
- I may use a more formal tone of voice for SA readers.
These are the types of subtleties that South African practioners need to explore in more detail. While we can draw on international principles and best practice, let's not forget that, plainly put, Seffrikan is... well, Seffrikan.
We must learn from international experts, but we must not forget that local expertise is essential.
Keep well all
Plain English is also about financial educationFrances Gordon |
19 November 2006 |
Most people do not read financial documents. This article in the Financial Times (FT.com, 9 September 2005) says a survey showed that people are far more likely to read the calorie counts on food packaging, or even their horoscopes, than financial statements.
There are two reasons for this:
1. If you understand very little about a topic, you can't see its importance to you.
2. If a document is text dense and difficult, reading it is too much bother.
Traditionally, plain language addressed the second point only. But we believe that, especially in South Africa, we also need to take a careful look at the first one. In other words, financial institutions should make it their business not only to sell and administer products, but also to educate consumers about them.
Fortunately, many companies are taking this leap - as they realise the strongest way to build loyalty and trust is to empower consumers to make informed decisions.
Research on plain language formsFrances Gordon |
29 October 2006 |
Not enough worthwhile research is done into plain language. All too often research companies test what readers think they understand rather than what they really understand.
Here's a welcome exception - it's a study on court forms in the US (Maria Mindlin, 2005). It compared understanding of current forms to ones rewritten in plain language. One of the questions was 'what is the purpose of this form?' - an excellent catch-all question for this kind of study. Readers of the plain-language form answered correctly 70% of the time compared to 23% for the current form.
The findings also showed some incidental benefits - such as a reduction in the cost of translation.
You can find the study, and an example of the plain-language forms from a link off the blog, Shlep - The Self-Help Law ExPress. Notice how the plain-language form uses diagrams and white space to make an intimidating topic seem more friendly.
It's just design! An article about Philips.Frances Gordon |
15 October 2006 |
A while ago, I wrote a case study where I looked at the Simplicity campaign at Philips. An article on FastCompany points out that although Philips' big design idea really is a Big Design Idea, it's not the yellow-brick road. Or if it is, it's a long road.
Thanks to Michele for sending me the link.
In other news, Simplified featured in a short interview on SAFM yesterday. Hopefully I'll be able to post some highlights here in a couple of days.
Have a good week all,
World Usability Day comes to South Africa on 14 NovemberFrances Gordon |
04 October 2006 |
Does everyone out there know about World Usability Day on 14 November? That's when the winners of a nation-wide competition will be announced. If you or your company have something that you think makes life easier for the people who use it, why not enter? Details are here.
Competition categories are:
1. Educational Institutions
2. Entertainment Sector
3. Financial Sector
4. Tourism Sector
5. Website/Intranet Entry
Framework for communication planningFrances Gordon |
04 October 2006 |
I came across the concept of communication ecology last week. It's an interesting framework for looking at the relationship between the environment and communication.
These types of frameworks are often used by academics, but not in the business world. Yet perhaps they should be as, if correctly applied, they can be very useful indeed.
In a call for papers from the Electronic Journal of Communication (October 2006), the editors talk about three layers for communicative ecology:
- A technological layer (for example, communication channels, devices, documents types)
- A social layer (for example, the type of relationships - friendships, professional, legal...)
- A discursive layer (the content that informs the message, for example, the fact that the people involved have an understanding of financial services, or the fact that they distrust large corporates, or whatever the ideas are that inform their readings).
In these bullet points, the layers are mentioned by the journal editors, but I came up with the examples. I hope they reflect what the authors meant. I just did not want to bog down this blog with too much academic language...
Keep well everyone,
Plain language criteriaFrances Gordon |
25 September 2006 |
Hi all Simplifiers
So South Africa now has the legislative and regulatory support for plain language in financial services. Then why are most documents still not in plain language?
There are a couple of reasons - but an important one is that there are no agreed-on standards on what plain language actually is. If a document uses short sentences and the active voice, but is poorly structured and designed, is it still plain language?
If a document is clearly written, but leaves out critical information, or gives misleading information, is it still plain language?
At Simplified, we've tried to put together a set of objective plain language criteria that can be used to assess a document to see if it complies with plain language.
If anyone would like a summary of these, please contact us through the site. We have sent out the summary to a couple of industry practitioners already: we'd appreciate any feedback you have - on the criteria or on the concept.
Keep well everyone,
Plain English before-and-aftersFrances Gordon |
29 August 2006 |
We've posted some examples of plain English rewrites on our site. Have a read through them and if you have any comments, here's the place to put them.
You'll notice that all the rewrites we have used are shorter than the original versions. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes when one rewrites something in plain language, it becomes longer. There are three main reasons for this:
1. Jargon needs to be explained. It's shorter to say something like 'RIY is greater for our product than for others in the market' than to explain what RIY actually is. (RIY stands for Return in Yield. It is the figure that is used to compare the costs of different investment products.)
2. We use more white space and a larger font size.
3. We give information that was missing before.
That's all for now. Enjoy the before-and-afters,
Pirates, plain and simpleFrances Gordon |
21 August 2006 |
After my last rather serious post, I cannot resist posting this brilliant piece of dialogue from Jack Sparrow and co. (Pirates of the Caribbean):
Elizabeth: Captain Barbossa , I am here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against Port Royal .
Barbossa: There are a lot of long words in there, Miss; we're naught but humble pirates. What is it that you want?
Elizabeth: I want you to leave and never come back.
Barbossa: I'm disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means "no".
the subtlety of simplicity Frances Gordon |
21 August 2006 |
Hi to all
Prof. John Maeda, simplicity fundi from MIT Media Lab, put together a set of laws of simplicity. You can read them here on his blog. Everytime I do so, I get something more out of them.
For example, the second law states:
The positive emotional response derived
from a simplicity experience has less to do
with utility, and more to do with saving time.
Is that true? Or does it depend on what kind of person you are, the subject matter, or what kind of culture you belong to?
The eleventh law is the most interesting: it explains one of the processes of simplification that I have never seen put into words before:
It then dawned upon me that the intellectual approach to simplicity is to reduce details, whereas the intuitive approach to simplicity is to add subtlety. The beauty of subtlety is that it is usually weightless, hard-to-detect, and, by most accounts, invisible. In other words, it is the style of something gained from nothing. Thus we arrive at the eleventh law of simplicity:
Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, while adding the meaningful.
This begins to explain why I have always found empathy one of the most important qualities for simplifiers. Simplifying does not (just) happen through logical deduction.
Beware: insurance small printFrances Gordon |
08 August 2006 |
We recently found this piece of wording from an insurance policy. The policy is being offered to people through retail stores in rural South Africa. It has to do with insurance for goods bought on hire purchase. Here is the first sentence of the contract: it is 97 words long and is presented in six-point arial.
''In consideration of the payment of the premium and subject to the terms, exceptions, conditions, provisions and limits of Master Policy XXX 12345678, Insurance Company* Financing Ltd (hereinafter referred to as The Insurer”) agrees to indemnify Financier* (Pty) Limited (hereinafter called the Financier) on behalf of the Buyer herinafter called the Insured in respect of loss or damage (as defined) to the goods by repair, replacement or payment at the discretion of the insurer against the insured events as hereinafter provided occurring during the period of insurance but not exceeding the amounts as specified.''
It should be illegal to sell a policy with wording like this... Oh, wait. Actually it is!
*All names have been changed...
Geek-speak gets plain. Or does it?Frances Gordon |
23 July 2006 |
Thanks to Candice for sending me the recent article in BusinessWeek, How Intel Cuts Through the Jargon (18 July, 2006). The article lauds this company for a new campaign to connect with customers by using plain language.
Along with explaining the benefits of plain language and giving some useful tips, it gives a before-and-after example of an explanation for a dual-core computer chip.
Before: Dual- and multi-core processors have two or more full execution cores within a single processor enabling simultaneous management of activities. In a dual-core computer chip, there are two ’performance engines’ that can take more data and simultaneously process the data into rich multimedia content at a faster rate.
Here is the plain-language version suggested in the article:
Every personal computer has a brain chip, or microprocessor. Until recently, these chips had one processing core, or brain. The latest buzz in Silicon Valley is all about so-called dual-core brain chips for PCs. Dual-core microprocessors have two brains instead of one. With all of this divide-and-conquer power, a twin-brain processor allows you to do a lot of fun and productive things simultaneously.
My questions to the article’s version are:
- What’s the difference between a dual-core brain chip and a twin-brain processor? If they are the same thing, why not use the same words?
- The analogy of two brains makes one think the computer will run twice as fast. Is this true? (That question’s not rhetorical – I have no idea!)
My version would be something like:
When your computer’s doing more than one thing at a time, it often runs slowly. A dual chip lets it do more than one thing a lot faster.
Then I’d give an example.
The failing of this rewrite is that it doesn’t ’’really’’ explain what the dual chip (which I unfairly renamed) actually does.
The reasons for this are 1) Does the average non-geek-speaking customer really want - or need - to know?, and 2) Admittedly, even after reading both explanations given in the article, I still don’t understand the concept enough to translate it into plain language.
Underground information designFrances Gordon |
16 July 2006 |
While sweating it out muddling through the New York subway system, I got to thinking about underground maps.
These are the undergrounds I've used: Paris, London, New York, Santiago, Munich.
Of these, to me, London's is the clearest and New York's the most confusing. Interesting that London's tube map is not spacially correct - so for years you could be switching lines underground instead of walking five minutes on top. New York's is spacially correct but reasonably baffling.
There is a great discussion on subway maps on Edward Tufte's forum at www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=00005W&topic_id=1.
I'm wondering what our Gautrain map will look like. As there will only be one line (I think), and not too many stops, it probably would be best to make it reflect real distances. Although I hope that whoever creates it does quite extensive user testing...
Anyway, last week in NY, I approached the ticket-sales person for a map (they seem to hide them). He gave me not a map but a brochure which said said something like: ''Now catching the subway in New York is as easy as A, B, C, N, E, Z, 1, 2.... '' I chucked it and stuck to the buses.
Virgin Money plain languageFrances Gordon |
16 July 2006 |
Bravo to Virgin Money (South Africa) for its online credit card application (go to www.virginmoney.co.za and click ‘Apply now’).
The process is well-presented and most of the terms and conditions are in plain language. Another plus factor - they are only one-page long.
Virgin Money makes these two important conditions explicit right from the start – I love the fact that there is no click-through to them and absolutely no small print.
‘I acknowledge that all the information I will provide is correct and if it is not I understand that this will be fraudulent.’
‘I consent to you checking my credit record with any credit reference agency. I also consent to Virgin Money providing credit reference agencies with regular updates about the conduct of my accounts, including the failure to meet the agreed terms and conditions. I also agree that the credit reference agencies may, in turn, make my record and details available to other credit grantors.’
These may not be perfect, but they are among the best I have seen in South Africa.
There are a couple of sentences that I feel could be improved. For example, the experience starts with ‘Are you accessing a saved application?’ – which, to me, is quite unfriendly. They should rather ask if users are starting a new application or continuing one they have already started.
And of course, the following 75-word sentence is completely out of place:
‘’These terms and conditions shall be governed and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the Republic of South Africa and application for the product offered on this site or pages will constitute your consent and submission to the jurisdiction of the South African courts regarding all proceedings, transactions, applications or the like instituted by either party against the other, arising from any of the terms and conditions pertaining to this site or the product.’’
Any thoughts on these clauses? Or on online applications in general?
Keep well everyone,
The Simplified anthemFrances Gordon |
16 July 2006 |
One of our colleagues wrote an anthem for all the Simplifiers out there. I thought it was worth sharing, but will keep the author anonymous... So altogether now to the tune of that Iggy Pop song:
You are the Simplifiers
And you write and you write
You read through business documents
What do you see?
You see such frightful, hollow words
You see no summaries
All of it was made for you to fix
All of it was made for you to fix!
Actually come to think of it, it's a little negative song. Sometimes we Simplifiers do see more than frightful, hollow words. Promise.
Ground rulesFrances Gordon |
07 May 2006 |
Here are some ground rules for commenting within this blog:
1. Be polite. This means no swearing, no slandering.
2. Make your point succinctly.
3. You are welcome to make your point anonymously. However, we’ll be more likely to answer if you introduce yourself by describing where you are from, the type of work you do, and the industry you work in.
We may decide to edit any comments on this blog. If we do this, there’ll be a <edited> after it. We may also decide to delete any post we think unsuitable. Please look at legal if you are interested in our disclaimers (promise they’re in plain language!)
welcome to our plain English blogFrances Gordon |
04 May 2006 |
Thanks for visiting our plain English blog - Candice and I decided to become bloggers so that we can share some of our thoughts, experiences and debates about simplified communications.
We hope that you feel free to add your comments. And if you have any questions about simplifying your documents, this is the place to ask them.
To introduce ourselves: We are both consultants in simplifying communications. Candice is a plain language attorney, and I come from the brand, marketing and technology areas. We work together on helping companies to produce clear communications - together, we founded Simplified.
We hope to share our experiences and ideas with you... but first another post with some groundrules.
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