Plain Language lies, like other lies, are a routine part of life. More so these days, as bankers and financial advisers have learnt that people are easily seduced into believing they can understand plain language—even when they don’t.
For a long time now, research and our own testing on behalf of organisations show that the plain language style of writing, accompanied by ostensibly clear layout and graphics, encourages confidence in readers that they understand what they are reading. Often the evidence shows otherwise.
Using new tricks to gain the confidence (and money) of others is an ancient art. In the fifteenth century, the new printing press enabled the production and sale of thousands of indulgences. In the 1970s, seemingly within minutes of the discovery of ‘body language’, a story circulated that used-car salesmen all over the world were practicing eye contact in the mirror. ‘Plain language’ has become another trick. Even where there are laws at work to protect consumers by requiring plain language, those who desire to dissemble can easily find the way to do so.
The Australian consumer law designed to protect consumers requires that the terms of a contract must be transparent, and defines transparency as:
(a) expressed in reasonably plain language; and
(b) legible; and
(c) presented clearly; and
(d) readily available to any party affected by the term.
‘Transparency‘ in this context is a metaphorical usage implying seeing through something to what lies beyond (pardon the pun). But reading is not like this. Readers do not see ‘through’ to what is there, like seeing through clear water to the bottom of a shallow lake. Readers actively construct what is in front of them out of their own sense and knowledge of the world, the context of what they are reading, and their expectations of the document. Right from the start, legislators are asking document writers to do something that can easily be fudged.
Consider ‘expressed in reasonably plain language’ What are we to make of the adjective ‘reasonably? Who is the arbiter? The word tells us something about the author’s writing style and perhaps their intention, but not very much else. We can ask the same questions about legible and presented clearly. Legibility and clarity are not stand-alone characteristics of text. I recently tested some medicine pack information that was perfectly legible to an 18-year-old student, but quite illegible to a 55-year-old father, even with his glasses on. Legibility and clarity of presentation might imply a particular intent by a writer, but how do we know how a document appears to readers? About the only thing we might establish with some transparency is whether or not the text is readily available to a particular reader.
This type of legal waffle is itself a kind of dissembling, offered up as a token gesture, one I have commented on before. If plain language is so good, why would I be so sceptical? At a bare minimum, people should be able to use documents to perform certain specified tasks, and the tasks and the level at which those tasks can be performed need to be specified. For some time now1since 1994 and the first edition of Writing About Medicines for People we at CRI have been specifying that people should be able to find at least 90% of what they look for and successfully use 90% of what they find. But these are bare minimum standards only. We share these and other important necessary standards with our Members and Fellows; we are building a library of Performance Requirements for public documents for our Members and Fellows, based on our subsequent research 2Sless, David. “Designing Public Documents.” Information Design Journal + Document Design Journal 12, no. 1 (2004): 24–35..
No plain language guidelines—let alone any legislation—specify such standards, even the bare minimum. In the legislation above and in the many implementations in similar jurisdictions we continue to see vague and at times meaningless standards applied. In the end we are left to trust that past dissemblers will now do right thing.
For a contemporary example of seemingly reformed dissemblers, look no further than the 2019 freshly-minted, newly-polished, ever-improving, best-practice Australian Banking Code of Practice:
73. Before you accept a loan offer, we will give you a plain English document clearly setting out the key general terms and conditions of the loan. This is in addition to the disclosures required under Part 3 of the Code, and may be a separate document or part of the loan document. (page 29)
I got stuck on the second sentence of para 73 of the new code, even before I was given the plain English, clearly set out, etc, loan document (do I smell some dissembling here?). The Banking Code has been written for me as a user, it’s addressed to me as a customer and citizen, it’s packed with photographs of happy families, it’s full of promise. Promises, promises. What about evidence? Even if the English in the loan document is reasonably plain, legible, clearly set out, etc, will you be able to use it? Two things might happen: (1) you read it and think you understand it and sign the document, only to discover some time later that you hadn’t really understood it (why do you think we needed a Royal Commission?); or (2) you read it and bits don’t make sense to you, and you keep very, very quiet—because clearly you must be stupid. After all it’s in PLAIN LANGUAGE.
This is the bankers’ ‘get out of jail’ clause. This is power speaking to the hapless confused customer.
History suggests that organisations without effective regulation will continue to lie where they can gain advantage and dig deeper into your wallet; a government without a proper bill of rights for citizens will continue to use plain language as a token gesture for services it fails to deliver; and consumers and citizens will continue to feel stupid and stay silent. ‘Twas ever thus. But don’t blame plain English enthusiasts; many of them want to do the right thing. Perhaps they should adopt a code of conduct—a kind of hippocratic oath to do no harm. It’s taken doctors only 2000 years to be able to claim that they can sometimes follow their own code of conduct.
If you would like to see earlier improvements in regulation to protect consumer and citizen rights, why not join us now.