Sandra Martins

Managing Partner, Português Claro

This conversation is closed.

How can we simplify legal/business language?

What would it take for governments and businesses to adopt plain language in their communications with citizens and consumers? What's happening now, in your country or community, that could also work for others?

This Live Conversation will open at 2.30 pm EST on January 26th, 2012.

EDIT: Because of overwhelming enthusiastic responses, this conversation open for few more days. Sandra will be checking your comments from time to time and follow up with them. Thank you for participating!

  • Jan 26 2012: it's a brilliant idea. I'm a native Chinese speaker, and i must say reading any kind of specialized writing in Chinese is a lot easier than in English. -- Back a 100 years the Chinese did away with all the jargons and complex classical language rules and from my perspective it really makes education more efficient, and it also make it easy for lay people to understand what's going on.

    for example, the term for pneumonia in Chinese is just "lung infection", Pyelonephritis is just "kidney infection", Cirrhosis is just "liver become hard disease". etc. it not only helps lay people understand what's going on, but it also makes learning easier. when you take classes in Chinese, you just learn how things work, where as in English you spend a lot of time learning how things are called.

    as for how to implement simple language, I'd say one easy way is to simply have interested parties come together and come up with a list of simple words. With automation it should be easy for any writer to conform to the standard if they so choose.

    if George Boolos can explained goedel's second incompleteness theorem using only one syllable words, there should be no reason why doctors and lawyers can't explain a much less abstract ideas in the same way
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      Jan 26 2012: I always wondered if there was such thing as plain Chinese. Then I started learning Mandarin and realized words were simply put together to form other words, just like you describe.
      But i still find it surprising that doctors, lawyers and people in positions of power didn't develop their own secret language to exert power over common people. It's human nature.

      English medical terms are complicated because they are based on latin words. Health literacy campaigns often publish booklets with translations of these terms into common language, hoping that doctors will use them when talking to patients.
      • Jan 27 2012: Well, Sandra, for several thousand years, the Chinese elite did have an extremely complicated special language (the "eight-legged essay") that's entirely incomprehensible to laymen. The language, however, was not seen as a tool of oppression, but rather a tool of egalitarian ideal. -- The government was set up so that anyone who manage to master the excessively complicated language automatically attained political power, and most folks like it this way because when compared to alternatives where power is a matter of birth right or wealth, the system offers far more opportunities to poor people of low birth.

        What finally got rid of the obsession with language was an intellectual movement back in the 1920s called the New Culture Movement. The movement advocated simple vernacular language as a revolt against the old literary-dominated imperial system. Curiously, the New Culture Movement's rationale for simple language is the exact opposite of yours. The Movement did not want to get rid of jargon because it empowers the user and create inequality, just the opposite, the movement wanted to get rid of jargons because it thought that jargons did not empower the user enough. -- if you spend a year learning how to talk like an expert, you will have far less advantage than the other fellow who spend the same year spent studying how to think and make decisions like an expert so why bother learning a set of complicated language?
        • Jan 28 2012: Whatever the rationale they arrived at, the efficacy of a communication with reduced barriers is fairly immediate and apparently obvious.

          Complex ideas can still be described simply - our brains are far better structured to understanding complex contextual cues than it is in memorizing obscure and relatively rarely used facts - which is what technical language is for most people.
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          Jan 28 2012: Simply fascinating, AM Lee. Can you recommend a book about language evolution in China?

          George, I agree with you. Saying that complex language is needed to describe complex ideas sounds more like an excuse. Obviously, if your audience shares your knowledge of that sort language, go ahead and use it. Like in the examples that Tiffany Kahnen and John Niman mentioned in their posts: lawyers writing contracts that will be scrutinized by other lawyers. But when your reader is a layperson, show that you really know your stuff and explain it all using familiar words, examples, analogies, pictures, whatever takes to get the message across.
      • Jan 29 2012: sorry Sandra, I have never read any books dedicated to the evolution of Chinese language so i can't really recommend one. But Google seems to think that Elisabeth Kaske's "The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895-1919" is a good fit for your interest. The book is based on Ms. Kaske's PhD dissertation of the same title, so it should be very carefully researched, and its focus is on the politics of simplifying language -- which i guess would fit your interest more than books detailing the actual linguistics changes. (the book is indexed on google books and you can read about half of the book there)
      • Jan 29 2012: oh yeah let me just squeeze one irrelevant question in before this thing closes, is "etc" in Portuguese really "pa da ti pa da da pa da da" lol? or is that just your own quirky way of speaking ?
  • Jan 26 2012: In the film Philadelphia Denzel Washington asks Tom Hanks "to explain the situation to him like he's a five year old." If lawyers, teachers and those hoping to communicate effectively can bear this simple maxim in mind without coming across as condescending, I think things would go a lot more smoothly for all concerned.
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    Jan 26 2012: There is a balance between plain language and sounding too simple - I have experienced people switching off when an idea is not complicated - has anyone else had this experience?
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      Jan 26 2012: No, but I've have the opposite experience. Even very educated and literate people prefer simple language.
      But you're right, simple is not the same as simplistic. A simple explanation of a complex concept must not "twist" its meaning or be reductionist.
      It's important to get rid of the prejudice that plain language is baby talk.
  • Jan 29 2012: Granted. But should doctors speak to each other as they would speak to a patient? I believe there are several points to consider 1) can the same person do both? 2) shoudl the same person do both? 3) should the simple become a little more complex and the complex a lot (! or not)more accessable in the process?
    1) many mothers during the first few years of their children's life compaling about "going brain dead".. One of many reasons for that - a young child doesn't warrant a complex verbal communication. During studying we are forced to deliver volume of work - 5,000 words or more etc. We are NOT praised if the subject could be covered by fewer statements, but penalised! Therefore often unnecessary bubbles are created..At work we are constantly forced to deliver volume of communication - once again, how can you charge for document of 1 page the same that you could (would) charge for the same concept of 50 pages... To stretch is out - that's where the "new" words are necessary -... Once you learn all those new words - can you actually go back efficiently? Can you concise effectively? Can it actually be done without feeling like a mother to a newborn - "usuing only some of her potential? etc? 2. Should we than strive to do it all - simple and complex or should interpretors become involved? Just like help is being used to make up presentations to use MORE words - maybe there should be a service that allows for less words to be used? The concept is already in place - in marketing, advertising etc... Labels that can't carry loads of info conceised to make sense... 3) why do we treat consumers(clients) as incapable to understand the language we use in business/legal every day. Isn't it somewhat patronizing to think that they need so much simplification? Legal advice here requires us to put matters in plain English - and I never had one client complain - is it because I am originally Russian and speak 2 other languages fluently that I pick up on general ignorance? Thanks
  • Jan 28 2012: A naieve opinion: Have the intent of the law discussed openly in plain english terms and attached to the actual definition and letter of the law. The intent isn't the legal definition - but rather the guideline on how to apply the legal definition of the law.

    This is not dissimilar to having commenting and documentation in programming - one states the design intent and the rationale used to achieve it, while the other provides the actual code by which the mechanics of the action are carried out.

    We use both, because some code can be very opaque; especially when you start getting functions that call functions that call other functions, ad nauseum.
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      Jan 28 2012: This is a pragmatic solution and it has been tried before. From October 2010 to December 2011, the Portuguese government published plain-language summaries of all new decree-laws (laws made by the government, not by Parliament). These were published, along with the laws, in Portuguese and English, in the online version of the Official Gazette.

      About 200 summaries were published to mixed reviews. Regular folk loved them, legal folk tended to hate them. Main criticism: the government had no right to "interpret" the law, that was the lawyers' and the courts' job.
      I'm not legally trained - my part in this project was to write the summaries, which would then have to be approved by the government - so I couldn't argue with some of the more conceptual views. But I think that resistance is always to be expected when you try something new and, particularly, when you start messing with certain groups' power.

      If you'd like to see some of the summaries, visit this Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/leiclara?ref=ts
      • Jan 29 2012: Haha. I'm sure we'll see this idea rear its head somewhere else in some form again - after all, I've arrived at it quite independently from the Portugese government, so it's likely its an idea that's been proposed or at least thought of by more. It is in a sense, an obvious solution...

        But you're right - those entrenched in power, that rely on certain ineffective details to retain that power are motivated to fight against progress in order to retain their own standing and positions in society. The human mind is so averse to personal loss after all.
  • Jan 27 2012: I saw where another poster provided a link to PlainLanguage.gov, but I didn't see any reference to the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-111publ274/pdf/PLAW-111publ274.pdf), which was signed into law in fall 2010. It requires federal agencies to use plain language in new documents beginning one year after the law's enactment. PlainLanguage.gov has lots of examples of how using plain language vastly simplified government communications. It even has examples of money saved because the new, clearer communication eliminated the need for workers to field many phone calls from people who needed help understanding government communications or forms.
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    Jan 26 2012: Obrigado, Sandra. Fico muito satisfeito com essa iniciativa de tornar claro o que se escreve na investigação (pelo menos nos resumos). Fico chocado, sinceramente, por me deparar com resumos que não resumem nada, ou pela complexidade ou, como disse, por mascararem a falta de substância. Assim questiono: investigam para quê e para quem? Para o "canudo" e para o seu ego. Porque, acredito, que um grande cientista ficaria lisonjeado se o mais simples dos seres humanos entendesse perfeitamente a sua extraordinária descoberta.
    Já agora, vi por alto o site http://portuguesclaro.pt, que me parece que seja teu, e parece-me muito interessante e pertinente. Sou designer de comunicação e curiosamente uma das minhas lutas tem sido a clareza da comunicação através do "menos design possível". Tal como é importante retirar palavras, também é importante tirar grafismos supérfluos no design gráfico e no design de produto.
    Felicidades e obrigado por este forum muito interessante e construtivo. Parabéns.
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    Jan 26 2012: "Comes now Plaintiff, by and through counsel undersigned below, hereby states and alleges for his cause of action as follows:

    Plaintiff states...

    Which ones is quicker, easier and makes sense to non law trained people? My guess is the first is tradition, habit or done without thought because that is the way it has always been done. Not exactly compelling reasons to continue, are they?
  • Jan 26 2012: I completely agree. Two things I think drive the complexity of the language. 1. is scholarly pursuits that create their own lingo 2. the business benefit of maintaining legal speech in a world of it's own.

    I remember the first time I read an overseas contract. A lawyer had to translate it for me. I wondered why the arcane writing and not just plain text. He told me the plain text was "ambiguous" but the legal term where obfuscated.

    When contracts require a lawyer to interpret them, a lawyer has to be hired and there is a profound monetary benefit to the whole lawyer community to maintain that as a specialized field with it's own impenetrable language.

    BTW the "plain text law" is that ever enforced?

    EDIT: I wrote a blog about using programming as an alternative language for writing laws. http://rabbitmoondot.blogspot.com/2011/07/programmatic-law.html
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      Jan 28 2012: One of the most common criticism of plain language is that it can never be as precise as legal language. My experience tells me the exact opposite: often, the convoluted language used in laws, contracts, etc. hides imprecisions and ambiguities, many (but not all) of them unintentional.
  • Jan 26 2012: Legal flow charts that show all parties affected in a given contract... that way when a consumer looks at the end result of the contract it can be clearly understood. If it looks like an Escher and the water is flowing uphill you might not be inclined to sign it.
  • Jan 26 2012: I think difficult language evolves naturally over time in any specialized field. "Terms of art" as they are known come into being naturally. That makes the project to make everything easily understandable an ongoing project with no end, because the evolution of difficult language and terms is also an ongoing and never-ending process.

    There are also those who intentionally do not want to be understood. You raised the mortgage crisis as an example. But as we see at this point, "predatory lending" was specifically based upon the people's inability to understand the mortgage contract.

    I applaud what you're doing but the forces that resist the effort are many and strong. I wish you the best of luck. I do think that efforts that focus on specific areas are a good way to start though -- justice system, then consumer finance like credit cards and mortgages, voting rights, etc. -- one at a time.
  • Jan 26 2012: Credit cards are a good example of the current subject, maybe they should have a motto like "neither borrower or lender be" with a picture of William Shakespeare on the card... or how about a picture of a homeless person pushing a shopping cart on the card much like the present day cigarette packages. : ^ )
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      Jan 26 2012: Likewise, I've always thought the "remittance advice" that ATMs give you should say "You do not need what you are about to buy. Put this money back."
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    Jan 26 2012: Saw your TEDx speech. Brilliant by the way.

    On the consumer side of things I've started asking for simpler language documents and have been pleasantly surprised to find some businesses do and have been trying to spread the word to the people around me to ask as well. If businesses get reoccurring requests it will help them to see there is a point.
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      Jan 26 2012: That's what moves things forward! Just make sure they know why you're not buying or, if they're clear, why you're buying. Tell the person serving you, tell their consumer service, tell their quality department, and tell their CEO!
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    Jan 26 2012: The CFPB is working to make things like credit card agreements more understandable. Generally the complicated agreements are not written for the average case but the ones at the margin. Agreements are also complicated when businesses are trying to contract out of default rules. We don't have long agreements for things like buying groceries because those are covered by the UCC and while the average person has not read the UCC they have a sense of what it means. So by creating more standards and uniformity we can probably reduce how complicated various agreements are.
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      Jan 26 2012: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a great job. Financial regulators in other countries could learn a lot from them.
      I agree with you: some agreements are so complex because the lawyers who wrote them want to cover all possibilities. My question is: is it worth it? Are those remote cases so expensive to deal with that it justifies burdening the contract with another 20 pages of small print that alienate all the other clients? Wouldn't a simple contract increase business and end up making the company more money that a watertight contract that avoids a few lawsuits but makes my company look bad?
  • Jan 26 2012: Hi Sandra,

    Interesting topic!

    We've got quite a cool project related to language simplification at Memorial University (in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada) where I work.

    It's called Yaffle.ca and it's an online database of projects and research from the university. Researchers are asked to provide lay summaries of their work: once submitted, the summaries are edited to make them understandable to a general audience.

    The ultmate goal of the project is to help communities and regions in our province access the wealth of knowledge based at the university. Our take is that, if the people who need this information can't access research because of difficult wording, then we're not making the most of it.

    -Rebecca
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      Jan 26 2012: This sounds great, Rebecca.
      Someone mentioned a similar idea to me recently, but they were coming from another perspective (not different, but complementary): many research projects get public funding, but their results are not accessible to the public due, in part, to the language used. In their opinion, a plain language summary should be part of the funding criteria.
      I'd love to talk to you more about this project. Please email em at sandra [dot] martins [at] portuguesclaro [dot] pt
    • Jan 26 2012: A big hello from one Canadian to another! I work at a university in Finland and some of my colleagues are really interested in the 'popularization' of research and I think this could be a great idea for us too. Please e-mail me as well with more info: paula[dot]haapanen[at]lut[dot]fi.
  • Jan 26 2012: I have two recommendations:

    1. Introduce executives and public policy makers to more teachers. Teachers know how to strip down big concepts to the simplest terms for their students. Executives often scoff at the idea of simple concepts, but it's a vital skill.

    2. Adopt a "Less is More" strategy. Use less words in your speeches, fewer slides in Power Point, less words in your press releases. If you are forced to communicate more quickly, you have no choice but to simplify. And a simple message is a message that resonates.
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      Jan 26 2012: True intelligence is to take a concept complex and difficult in and of itself, and to condense it down to a level that even a child can understand.
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        Jan 26 2012: Exactly, even Einstein said that.
        The real skill is to be able to discuss the complex concept with different audiences, using the language that each will understrand.
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      Jan 26 2012: Henry, "less is more" works in many situations. However, there are moments when clarity requires more words, some images, a few more explanations. We need to make sure that our audiences grabs the concepts, even if we think they're pretty obvious. So, a document that was 2-pages long might end up being 5-pages long because we must make sure the reader knows what our concepts mean.
  • Jan 26 2012: Lawmakers and lawyers should follow the example of the medical profession: write in plain language at a 5th grade reading level. Medical nomenclature is no less complicated than legal verbiage, but any complex language can be written in simple terms. Unfortunately, there appears to be little economic motivation for clear language, whereas there is often motivation for obscurity, loopholes, confusion, and deception.

    See the following:
    http://www.plainlanguage.gov/
    http://centerforplainlanguage.org/
    http://www.health.gov/communication/literacy/plainlanguage/PlainLanguage.htm
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      Jan 26 2012: Absolutely! The only concern I would have is how such simplified language would be handled in courts. The legal system has evolved to function on legalese. A hybrid of legal and common language - where common language is for form and legal language for the binding aspects - could bridge that gap. The great question there, however, is - would organizations render the same language equally in legalese and in common terms? Would things be hidden in the legalese under the guise of understanding? If we abandoned complex language in favor of the simple, could that be abused by court systems and lawyers to serve clients' interests?
      • Jan 26 2012: Perhaps unsurprisingly, even a verbal agreement can be considered a binding contract in court. It's even possible (at least in some courts) to submit a document handwritten on notebook paper. The actual requirements for legal documents is quite low-- they just have to meet certain criteria in what they communicate, but all of the formality and overflow language seems to be a byproduct of legal culture moreso than of any real requirements.

        The important bit of it is not to translate the legalese, but then keep the legalese-- but to abandon the legalese altogether. I think generally, people think there is some power in legalese-- like it's an arcane language of incantation that renders things important or austere enough to be taken seriously. The reality is that there isn't anything that legalese communicates more effectively to a general audience or more economically than plain language.
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      Jan 26 2012: My experience of the medical profession is quite different. Doctors tend to use as much jargon as lawyers. Please tell me more about these doctors who write at 5th grade reading level. I'm very interested in hearing about that.
      • Jan 26 2012: I think it's only handwriting that doctors do at a 5th grade level.

        I thought this conversation had amazing timing: I am the Executive Director of a large criminal defense law firm in Los Angeles and I am, right this very minute, re-writing our "Engagement Letter" to clients (like a client contract) in thoroughly plainspoken English.

        The previous version was overly wordy and incomprehensibly impenetrable. To people who wonder "what business incentive there is to incur the cost?" As a general experience, people don't read (or comprehend the legalese).. leading to a relationship that is murky or ill-defined, leaving a lot of room for clients to be upset or surprised by things that happen routinely in a case. When that happens, people complain, malign you on the internet, demand money back, etc.

        By re-writing what is, in essence, a contract with the client, we get to spell out clearly not just what we demand of the client, but what we are promising as well-- we're not just changing the language, but we're also leveling the relationship created from the document.

        How this came about was in looking at our prior agreement, and then noticing that every time I sent it to a client, I would walk them through what it was "really saying" and then the idea hit me: why don't we just write ~that~ down instead? I had expected resistance from both the founding attorney in the firm and from our firm's ethics counsel, but I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm.

        We are doing this across the board-- all of our client-facing communications are being de-formalized, plainspoken, and direct.
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          Jan 26 2012: That's great! I bet your business will benefit from it, and not just in terms of the relationship with your clients (less complaints, etc.). You'll get more referrals from satisfied clients.

          Consider joining Clarity, an international association for the promotion of plain legal language, and sharing your experience with other members. Clarity's next conference will be in May in Washington.

          https://sites.google.com/site/claritydc2012/
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          Jan 26 2012: I'm so happy to hear you say that, Fletcher. I've always wondered why there is such a resistance to plain language as a lawyer will always have to explain it to a non-lawyer client at some point.

          Respect.
      • Jan 26 2012: It depends on the healthcare system. My employer, the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, works hard to deliver documents in plain language to patients. There are presentations on plain language (an example: http://www.massgeneral.org/stoecklecenter/assets/pdf/patient_exper/health%20literacy_11092011.pdf) and training sessions for those who work with patients (another example: https://hub.partners.org/catalog/one-section?section_id=5385468), along with other information that might not be available publicly on the web. The key is in training staff to understand the importance of and techniques for writing plain language.
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    Jan 26 2012: In my perspective, it's very simple. Use the power and the complexity of the English language as lightly as possible. Be as clear as possible. And most importantly, make sure that the communication is both ways. Get feedback from the citizens to see if they really understand the underlying meaning of the document. And, of course, make changes accordingly, in case they do not understand.
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      Jan 26 2012: Sounds like the perfect plan, Alek. If governments and companies actually did that, most people would understand most documents. But, somehow, it's never that simple. What is "clear" for an organization is rarely "clear" for common readers. And user-testing is normally seen as too time-consuming and expensive to become an everyday tool.
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        Jan 26 2012: In terms of cost, you're absolutely right. But in this case, there will be very few solutions that won't require some sort of spending on the business/government side. Which, being a business student, is understandably one of the reasons why it hasn't been done yet.
  • Jan 29 2012: Yes, the consequences are not seen, yet language is key.

    The students in our survey were rather skeptical if the (German) political and the media system could be changed - so thank you for the idea just to boycott those who don't use an understandable language. It's tough in regards to the state, but at least citizens could get the idea "It's not my fault that I don not understand. It's their fault, they do not express understandably." And claim to get better letters etc. Just had a look at your site and decided to join the Forum.
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    Jan 28 2012: Hi do you guys know about STE (Simplified Technical English) its used by the airline air traffic control and in a few other sectors
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_English

    I'm in a business associated with helping companies cut their translation budgets by getting the source language sorted out: for example
    http://ste.argostranslations.com/ste-consulting/

    In the long run if it saves money I guess it will spread, but its only recently that this has started to matter as globalization means more and more organisations have to think about
    not just their own language but the rest of the world too.
  • Jan 28 2012: Plain language is taken as a given, yet there are many diverse (and verbose!) definitions of it and many opinions on what's acceptable. Before we start to say we're implementing it, we need to agree on what it means. Many style-guides seem to be based on opinion and folklore. The early pages of the US federal guidelines are very eccentric and its rule on passive verbs seems unsubstantiated. There needs to be research on what sort of language communicates well, otherwise it's just me saying what I think plain language is and you disagreeing.
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      Jan 28 2012: You are absolutely right, Paul. Even plain-language practitioners can disagree when it come to defining what they do.
      Currently, we seem to be moving towards a definition that is more outcome-focused than method-focused. This means that a text/document/website/etc. is considered to be in plain language when the intended audience can easily read it, understand it and use it.
      The guidelines you mention are useful but do not, per se, guarantee this result. And, as you say, we need more research on the effectiveness of such guidelines.
      • Jan 28 2012: Thank you, Sandra. I've now critiqued those early pages of the federal guidelines as a PDF. They really are quite messy. I'm British but admire America and am concerned that that country should have such a document as a showpiece. I'd like to bring together writing-practitioners and academic linguists to discuss the subject of improving language, establishing standards and cognitive linguistics. I fear that there's an unusually large gulf between linguists and people who work with language (probably because of the way linguistics has developed in the Anglosphere). If government were writing guidelines on fishing, you'd hope it would consult not just anglers but marine biologists too. Good wishes.
      • Jan 29 2012: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages
        In the Eu, there are guidelines for language use. Most people in the Eu, don't speak the language of other membercountries. So if you write a text in B1, about 90% of the people will understand the text. In Holland there are experiments with rewriting text in B1.
  • Jan 27 2012: one thing to consider is that lawyers now use legalese to obscure and drive away the audience, could they not use simple language to do the same? lawyers could just as equally demand that their opposition speak in ever simpler terms as a form of lawfare until meaning or time has run out. and demanding that the opposition speak to people as though they were babies would drive them away as much as complex language.

    this is not an argument against, but merely a clause to add to the plain language dynamic. there should be some type of mechanism whereby lawyers cannot simply continue to ask for simpler language and stall the court or hammer at the intelligence of their opponent. i would suggest going to a jury.
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    Jan 27 2012: I think business has already taken the lead in that direction......example can be many advertisements are using every day people and every day language to communicate better with consumer instead of high priced super models and jargonic language.....

    Well law or government will not do that , because that's the "Abraca Debra" for them to confuse people and rule.........
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      Jan 27 2012: Adverts tend to use simple language (but not always transparent) because they are goal-oriented: if an advert is too complex, the product doesn't sell, the advertising firm gets fired.
      The problem arises after the deal is done, when the business suddenly changes the way it communicates with its customers - obscure terms and conditions, messy bills, etc.
      It's like a lovely boyfriend turning into a lausy husband once he hears that "I do".
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        Jan 28 2012: Yes, sometimes someone wants to be overly abstract or creative in advert, that may turn the communication in to a non transparent one or full of jargons that consumer seldom understands....but when business understands that it changes because thats the main way of reaching consumer and getting business which is in contrary to law/government.

        Should not all communication at least have a goal , which is communicating rightly what was intended to?

        I am not clear what you are trying to say by saying "problem arises after deal is done"

        If you wanted to say about communication related to buy-out, bankruptcy, merger etc of business, then actually they need to do communication in legal terms so it turns in to one as you described. Look here the target audience is different not the day to day consumer but it's the regulators, share holders, competitors, investors, bankers etc etc..... its a communication of lawyers...thats why it follows the usual rules their style.
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          Jan 28 2012: When I said that "the problem arises when the deal is done" I was referring to how a business changes the way it communicates with its customers once they signed on the dotted line. Pre-sales communications are friendly and simple, post-sale communications (contracts, bills, statements, customer service letters, etc.) tend to be much harder to figure out. The marketing experts give way to the legal department or to the IT guys that format the bills, and no-one seems to care about communication anymore. But their customers still care, they still want to be treated nicely and with respect.
  • Jan 27 2012: Hi Sandra and Paula,

    I'm not the project lead, but I've forwarded both of your addresses.

    We'd love to chat further about the project and what both of you are doing in relation to the challenge of making research understandable. It's a pretty major priority at our university because we serve a mainly rural population. "Our special obligation to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador" is actually part of our mandate, so I think that has helped us get administration on-board for these sorts of projects.

    Anyhow, we'll definitely be in touch on this.
  • Jan 27 2012: The journal Pediatrics, within the past several years, made an effort to make medical journal articles more readable - even for doctors themselves. Every scholarly article usually has an abstract, which summarizes the study. In this journal, they summarize the summary abstract, in clear, concise English. Makes it a lot easier to get through it all.
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      Jan 27 2012: Amazing..
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      Jan 28 2012: That's great. I heard that the journal Nature was doing something similar. It shows that plain language is not just for low literacy readers. Everyone benefits from materials that are easier to read - we all have so much information to get through everyday.
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    Jan 27 2012: Conquering illiteracy would be a good start. It's also hard to "plain language" information that is already complicated. I believe some governments, past & present, use this disconnect to their advantage...
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      Jan 28 2012: The two things must go hand-in-hand: increase literacy levels and make public documents clearer.

      Even in countries where literacy levels are fairly high, like Sweden, plain language is still important -- a high-literacy reader (let's say, a doctor) is as baffled by a rental contract, a letter from Inland Revenue or a piece of legislation as anyone else.
  • Jan 26 2012: olá a todos
    no meu ponto de vista , existe em Portugal dois grandes problemas para se poder simplificar a linguagem:
    1º a educação é feita de demasiada teoria e preparada de modo a criar diferença de classes em que o médico é o ser Doutor, o contabilista é Técnico oficial de contas e o professor é o mestre , a clivagem de posto ( profissão) é acentuada através de jargões e rétóricas para podermos parecer mais importantes doque os comuns mortais que são trolhas , emp. de balcão etc.
    2º o objetivo das instituições , sejam privadas ou publicas , em complicar as mensagens parece-me a mim claro, confundir os 80% dos Portugueses para assim como não conseguem perceber os contratos , não cumprem , como não cumprem falham , logo quem beneficia são as instituições. então para quê simplificar ? com isso só fariam que os 80% compreendessem e assim ficariam mais atentos e não seriam levados em erros e falhas logo as instituições lucrariam menos . isto parece-me mais grave quando o exemplo começa no Governo e entidades publicas e acaba nos sindicatos

    obrigado
  • Jan 26 2012: Man I need a proofreader.
  • Jan 26 2012: Many at times, this complex version of language in Government, legal and business is originated from legal requirements.

    For instance, in my home country in South Asia. They use complex form of the languages, but it's mandatory for them to do that at times. So only law can simplify it.
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      Jan 28 2012: Sometimes there are good intentions behind those laws. For instance, a financial regulator might demand that banks supply all sorts of information, in large print, hoping that will make it easier for consumers to understand what they're buying. Unfortunately, large print and lots of acronyms do not equal clarity.
      • Jan 29 2012: Using large print in the hopes that something will be easier to understand is kind of like shouting at someone who doesn't speak your language, and expecting that they will understand better. Doesn't work that way.
  • Jan 26 2012: Sandra thanks for a great and ongoing topic.
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    Jan 26 2012: Because of your enthusiastic response, we decided to leave this conversation open for few more days. I will be checking your comments from time to time. Thanks.
  • Jan 26 2012: I am concerned with over simplification. It is very often, that should an individual be able to learn a new language - that being a foreign language or the new language attributed to an industry - it would in itself serve as a natural selection criteria. Often with simplification comes a natural but dangerous feeling of "complete understanding", which, unfortunately can not be applied as more and more details are added to the core. By simplifying the language you are not necessarily simplifiying the issues it's used to discuss, but it appears to be so. What you may achieve is a false sense of understanding and a lot of opinionated conflicting individuals trying to do the right thing, but messing it up in the process.
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      Jan 28 2012: You raise an interesting point. There are, indeed, situations when simplified information can lead to a false sense of "complete understanding". It is up to the author of that information to make it clear that there is more to it and that the reader should not assume otherwise. However, the alternative -- to bombard the reader with every complex detail -- seems to me like a completely worthless exercise.

      If your doctor explains your diagnosis and your treatment options in plain language, you'll be in a better position to make a decision. You don't need to know all the complex chemical and physiological processes involved in each one of them. And you're unlikely to take the matter in your own hands and perform surgery on yourself or mix up chemicals to make your own pills.
  • Jan 26 2012: Normally when you speak you pronounce words. For the most part you give an explicit meaning. Sometimes you also make an implicit statement, a statement that is not actually pronounced loud but can be read in between the lines.

    You could for example say "-Sour" say the fox. But you do not really mean that foxes actually run around i the forest barking the word "sour". Instead you implicitly mean that some things just happen to be unattainable and for this very reason you say to yourself, that you really do not care since it is most likely not worth striving to get there. And even if you did, it would just be bad anyways."

    Sentence 1. Sour
    Sentence 2. Sour as in some things just happen to be unattainable and for this very reason you say to yourself, that you really do not care since it is most likely not worth striving to get there. And even if you did, it would just be bad anyways."

    A legal argument works the same way, but the difference is that a legal argument is surrounded by a lot more implicit meanings to each word and or combination of words that may or may not be the same. It is virtually impossible to add all principles, analogies, exceptions etc such that a certain rule will be emptied and have everything about it covered. In essence, they are impossible to print out.

    A second reason why it will not be possible is that the more text you add, the less general a certain statement or rule become, in the end you will have added so many things into it that you need make a second and third and ...rule to cover other situations not covered by the first. If you do not you will have a loophole in the law where all the bad sharks can swim through.
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      Jan 26 2012: One thing I really want to make clear is that I know that legal concepts can be very complex. I'm not disputing that. What I'm trying to raise awareness about is the old and stuffy way these concepts are communicated, especially the ones that affect citizens directly. There is so much "fluff" , archaic sentence constructions and unwelcoming design in legal texts that can quite easily be cut out. Law is complex but lawyers don't need to make it even more so by refusing to adapt to a modern way of speaking. This is the heart of the plain-language movement.

      In legal texts most technical terms only account for around 3% of the document. So, even if we don't change those, we can still improve 97% of it.
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    Jan 26 2012: As a corporate attorney, legal language is only one aspect of the problem. To streamline the legalese with business there must be a dichotomy lawyers employ. Drafting language should be left to convey the technicalities negotiated for in the Board Room. The negotiation process of the deal should keep legalese to minimum. Unfortunately, employing such legalese in contracts is a necessity because it is the technicality of language that specifically conveys the intent of the parties. The specificity is necessary to accurately convey the intent.

    To aid in this process, attorneys must remember that there is a difference between legalese and business. They must bridge that gap with common sense.
    • Jan 28 2012: Thanks for bringing up this point; it's exactly the one that I wanted to make.

      Some legal writing is confusing because of an over dependency on formalism and a desire to 'sound like a lawyer.' I'm currently in law school, and our writing instructors try to edit out this sort of writing. In general, at least at my school, there's a push to simplify legal writing when possible.

      Sometimes, however, simplification just isn't possible because lawyers need to be accurate. That sort of complexity is just a result of trying to explain complex transactions, and is likely to get more, rather than less, confusing if the lawyer tries to simplify the language. Well said, Tiffany.
  • Jan 26 2012: Okay, as a former business person (consultant and lender) turned attorney, business language obfuscation is typically a tactic where a company is intentionally trying to obscure the true intent of the message. Often they are complying with a requirement to disclose but muddle the language so that they aren't actually saying anything. This would be the intentionally poorly drafted communication. However, unintentional obfuscation is far more common in my experience, where so many people have had their hands in the document that there is no one author and nothing is actually expressed.

    As for legal agreements, a summary might be helpful (an abstract or executive summary) for the agreement, but the legal terms in an agreement are often required terms of art to comply with statutory or legal precedence, and while non-lawyers might dislike all the tedious detail, a company's counsel will often require it to minimize the client's risk and to clearly spell out all contingencies and terms.
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      Jan 26 2012: When that contract is between two companies, both with their own legal advisors, fine. For me, the problem arises when the other party is an everyday consumer.
  • Jan 26 2012: Try going on CCAP, read through a few case events, the language of the law can be very confusing and seem like a foreign language. Just look
    At a simple case and break it down into everyday language and see if the correct understanding remains.
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    Jan 26 2012: A literary mode was used in post-colonial Latin America for translating the interposition of super normal realities with there intended metaphorical equivalents as they happen in normal reality.
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      Jan 26 2012: magical realism? As in Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Great stuff, but you wouldn't want him writing your gas bill.
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        Jan 26 2012: Yes, as in real guidelines applied to a commodity rich speech community. A buffer of creatable intelligence. Something to go with when you got somewhere to go.
  • Jan 26 2012: Transparency seems to become more difficult as organizations etc. get larger. Why are there so many different languages in the world and in each language several regional dialects. We are like dogs in that we like to mark our territory... our way of barking seems to be to through introducing into our written language ways that keep the" them and us" mentality alive. Corporate espionage, the stealing of ideas, income tax etc. all lead to specialized language.
  • Jan 26 2012: Just watch The Dr. Oz tv show, he brilliantly takes some very complex ideas, facts, demonstrations and make it so very simple to understand. This is typical for TV shows but this does demonstrate clearly how important info can be made so anyone can understand.
  • Jan 26 2012: Last year a team of five students and me (professor for communication) did a large study (over 30.000 online surveys) amongst youth in Germany on the effects of political speech on young people and their (declining) wish to take part in the elections. We also asked them what they would like to have changed and they named politcians themselves, the media and also - surprisingly to us - the school where they are also confronted with too difficult language. The results are mainly in German, of course, but at least we have an English outline http://www.sprichst-du-politik.de/projektbeschreibung/
    I need to admit that when writing the report, we learned that it is hard work to express in a simple, yet correct language. Especially when being academically "spoiled".
  • Jan 26 2012: Hi Sandra
    I was recently in a news feature about entrepeneurship and strangely enough I have been receiving calls where people have shown to really NOT have understood what was the message of the feature (north to south of Portugal). Yes I have had obviously positive reactions, but scary to find that even through visual the message may not get through.
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      Jan 26 2012: Hi Marta. Even the word "entrepreneurship" might be too complex for a large percentage of the population. TV tends to be good at explaining these things because they illustrate complex concepts with concrete examples. I'd be curious to see the show you mention.
      • Jan 26 2012: here it is. in portuguese, but will you agree with me after seeing it, to receive phone calls of people that are promt to work with you? when you the one that need the credit!! it has been an interesting ride. but assure that even when well explained it may not get through. of course my 93 year old grandma did not get it, but the calls i got and which i received their cv's are well within my age... beijos

        http://www.tvi.iol.pt/mediacenter.html?load=1&gal_id=128753&fb_source=message
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        Jan 27 2012: The children mocking us with their potential! That is all I watched, the first couple of minutes. It is interesting how these newer mediums possess us with meaningful discourse.
        • Jan 27 2012: John you have made me smile, the children are free spirits and they do talk clear!! :)
  • Jan 26 2012: I'm usually against passing new laws, but perhaps pass something that allows people and other businesses to claim wording was in complex language to null and void contracts? But obviously social initiative towards making legal jargon simpler is also good. I know for my freelance contracts I write at the top of the page "This is written in plain english and is even a little bit funny, but it is a legally binding document."
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      Jan 26 2012: That's brilliant, Jordan! I guess some people would assume that, because they could easily understand it, it couldn't be a legal document.
      The South African plain language law allows consumers and small businesses to claim that a contract was void because they couldn't understand it. I'm yet to hear about a court case. Perhaps some South African out there can check and let us know?
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    Jan 26 2012: Se há coisa que me incomoda em Portugal, sobretudo no texto académico, é a falta de clareza na exposição de conteúdos. Nunca percebi se é por falta de substância, logo a falta de clareza mascára o vazio de ideias, ou se é pela tentativa vã de erudição. Na comunicação social e empresarial não é possível seguir esta linguagem, embora, como sabemos, sobretudo os economistas, pecam pela... falta de clareza. Tal como os advogados. No entanto, pela convicção expressiva que usam, quase que nem ousamos perguntar novamente o que realmente querem dizer!
    Por outro lado, deparamo-nos com o mau português utilizado nos mesmos contextos de comunicação.
    A chave, sem dúvida, está na brevidade do discurso, na síntese e na clareza das ideias. Em contexto de reuniões, façamos como Steve Jobs: não usar o PowerPoint. Este cria constrangimentos no debate. E sem debate não há progresso.
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      Jan 26 2012: Ricardo, espreita o post da Rebecca Cohoe. Era muito interessante tentar que as universidades portuguesas, especialmente as mais orientadas para a ciência, aderissem a esta boa prática: publicar resumos em linguagem clara da investigação que produzem.
  • Jan 26 2012: I teach English in Finland and we talk about plain English as a slow but growing movement, even within academic circles. However, academic English still has its conventions and they are followed because they serve as 'proof of entry' into a specific community for some and restricted entry for others. I think the same applies to the language in legal and goverment documents; even though normal everyday people have them and sign them (!) they are never truly meant for a larger public but for a small community. Once the drafting of documents becomes a more inclusive endeavour involving large groups of people (think about Iceland's crowdsourced consititution), the language will become simpler because the document is really meant to be accessible to a larger public. Now to be fair, I can't read Icelandic, so I can't be sure that the consitution they are writing IS in simple language, but I would bet money that it probably is.
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      Jan 26 2012: I think you are right. I've heard that argument many times: yes, the citizens must comply with the law, but the law is not written to be read by them, it's written to be read by other lawyers, who can then explain its meaning, find its loopholes and mediate the whole process.
      The people who defend this, also say that plain language is possible (tolerable) in administrative documents (ie, the documents the state uses to communicate with citizens, other than the laws), but it can never be used to write laws. As if laws were different from any other technical text, like the instructions to install your boiler.
  • Jan 26 2012: Hello everyone!

    I must say that this topic is very interesting!

    In my opinion, simplifying legal/business language can become more difficult than it seems due to the fact that for a professional (e.g.lawyer, doctor, etc.) it's a lot easier to speak in the professional language. On the other hand, if we could all be able to understand the technical terms specific to a certain profession, than we wouldn't have to pay someone to translate it in common terms.
  • Jan 26 2012: Two words: Use periods.
  • Jan 26 2012: I agree with Alek, I think trial and error with feedback is essential. Everyone's idea of simplified and easy to understand is different. Also, from the perspective of someone who is generally long winded, short and concise when possible is also essential. If it's too long people get overwhelmed and/or bored and give up.

    So how does this become a reality/law?
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      Jan 26 2012: In some countries it is already law. The US have the Plain Language Act, which says that federal government must communicate in plain language with citizens. South Africa has a law that says that businesses must use plain language to communicate with their customers - even the financial sector!
  • Jan 26 2012: State and its citizens maybe very good info graphics will do?
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      Jan 26 2012: Infographics are a brilliant way of putting complex information across to a wide audience. I'd be interested to learn more about the relation between literacy levels and the ability to "read" infographics.
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        Jan 26 2012: I'm not so sure about infographics, visual communication can be sometimes as complex as written language to someone with less experience.
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    Jan 26 2012: The most realistic step that I can think of is if businesses began to adopt simplified language as a rule. The binding agreements would still need to be in legalese, probably. But, what if you stated clearly what the agreement is for, what it does, what it means for each party, and have the integrity to have matching agreements and language on both parts.

    I don't think that legalese will be going away any time soon, but the best place to start simplifying would be as individual decision makers - we should provide those we transact with a simplified experience, and I think that there will be increased adoption over time as more people use simplified language.
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      Jan 26 2012: Simplicity makes business sense. Some companies have realized that and adopted simple language as a way to please their customers. I agree with you that the process will be slow and, in some cases, market-driven. In some countries, this is being helped along by laws that require business to use clear language in their dealings with the public.
      But what about the government? What will encourage change in the public sector?
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        Jan 26 2012: Inevitably changes in the private sector will drive changes in the public sector. Unless you had a political movement (grassroots or driven by government officials/representatives) that championed this effort (and such an effort would certainly have significant opposition from those whose jobs depend on complex language and the interpretation thereof), changes in the public sector will be driven as businesses adopt increasingly simple language for agreements and policies. I'm optimistic that this will happen eventually, but I doubt it will happen in the foreseeable future.
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          Jan 26 2012: I dream of a future when companies and government agencies that use obscure language will be frowned upon. When people won't be afraid of saying "I don't understand" and "I don't accept this". As you say, this won't happen overnight, but many steps have already been taken and there are plenty of good examples to guide us.
    • Jan 26 2012: Will businesses do this on their own to start with though? I think it will cost them money to translate current documents into simplified language that's still legally binding in the way they want it to be. I hope that some companies will do it on their own and as consumers we can choose them and thus encourage others to follow suit so that there will be a precedence of desire/need for change to possibly make it common place.
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        Jan 26 2012: Consumers have power to choose the businesses that use clear communication. But often, it's not until the deal is done that complexity starts to emerge - in the contract, in the monthly bill, in their reply to complaints.
        Change will take time, but consumer preference and consumer protection legislation will succeed in making it happen. I'm confident.
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    Jan 26 2012: i guess everyone thinks they know all about clear simple writing....
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      Jan 26 2012: Clear writing is the writing that the reader can understand, easily and quickly. However, the reader is rarely consulted, or even considered, when a document is being written.
      How can we change this?
  • Jan 26 2012: Any ideas up until now?
  • Comment deleted

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      Jan 26 2012: Paulo, both are relevant, but I'm more concerned with communication between companies and consumers, and between the State and citizens.
      • Jan 26 2012: Unfornately there aren't many people in the Government that enjoy to simplify. A huge part of the workers have forgotten that - they are doing something to someone that cares. And it's easier and simpler to them: to just keep on using the same language (as they use in their official contracts).

        I can relate to them - in a sense - that u need a clear language between profissionals. A code that speeds up Reading, making the document.
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    Jan 26 2012: Hi, Jagdish. Welcome. Looks like it's you and I, for now.
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    Jan 26 2012: Hi - How many people do we have online?