Today is International Plain Language Day, a perfect opportunity to reflect on the international movement for adopting plain language. Over the past four days, Vancouver hosted the 20th anniversary conference on plain language, PLAIN2013. And the public was invited to a special free event on International Plain Language Day.
So, what exactly is plain language all about? It's NOT about writing dull prose! Rather, it's about writing clear documents that are understood the FIRST TIME your target audience reads them! I like the following definition for plain language which I found through a Google search:
"Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it."
The source is from a network of US government employees striving to improve communications to the public; you can read more at: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/index.cfm
Plain language is NOT about an over-simplified style. It IS about clear writing. Readers will find that documents written in plain language will be more relevant and easier to follow and use.
Of course, being Canadian, I had to check out our sources too. In The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada (http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pol/doc-eng.aspx?id=12316§ion=text, updated in 2012), there's actually a policy requirement specific to plain language, part of which states:
"An institution's duty to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about policies, programs, services and initiatives must be clear, relevant, objective, easy to understand and useful."
As a practical example, this summer, Health Canada launched a Plain Language Labelling Initiative for improving the safe use of drugs (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/nr-cp/_2013/2013-82fs-eng.php). The public was also invited to comment on how to make labels and safety information easier to read and understand. This has got to be a good thing: reducing preventable harm, as the initiative states, through adopting plain language. Thank you Health Canada for proposing these changes! I think health care is one of the most important areas where we need plain language and it just makes so much sense especially if lives might be saved.
The Translation Bureau has some useful information about plain language, including writing examples: http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tcdnstyl-chap?lang=eng&lettr=chapsect13&info0=13
And since the movement for using plain language is international, here's one more good resource to check out:
"PLAIN is the international association for plain language professionals that promotes clear communication in any language. We are a growing network of plain-language advocates, professionals, and organizations."
The movement for plain language began 20 years ago. While it takes time to see real change, I think more awareness, particularly by employees within organizations, is leading the way. Certain Canadian municipalities are starting to make the news with some poiticians' calls to reduce jargon. Of course some sectors are definitely going to be slower than others to adopt change (legalese comes to mind) but it's refreshing to see more public discussion about plain language. And celebrating International Plain Language Day is a fantastic way to improve public awareness.