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The History, Impact, and Future of the Plain English Movement

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Plain English. Its History, Impact, and Future

The Plain English movement, with its clear, direct language, represents a significant shift from the past's often dense and jargon-filled communication. This approach, which prioritizes simplicity and understanding, emerged as a response to the widespread frustration over legal documents, government forms, and academic texts that were hard to decipher for the average person.

In this article, we will dive into the history of the Plain English movement, its current state, examine its advantages and disadvantages, and examine tools that are pushing the movement forward.

The Emergence of Plain English

The roots of the Plain English movement can be traced back to the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time, the British middle and upper classes favored an ornate style of language. This style, however, was highly Latinate and often difficult for those with basic education. Advocates like William Barnes in the 18th century began to push for a more native or Germanic English, although their efforts did not necessarily make the language clearer. In the 1920s, C.K. Ogden's BASIC English, with its 850-word vocabulary, sought to embody plain usage principles​​, but this did not take off either.

In the United States, the modern plain language movement did not take off until post-World War II. This era laid the groundwork for the Plain English movement. Advocates like Jim Minor and John O’Hayre, with his seminal book “Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go”, championed the cause within government circles. This push towards simplification of language was not just about ease of communication, but also about fostering trust and transparency between the government and the public.

Key Milestones in its Development

As the movement gathered momentum in the 1970s, it saw a blend of political will and practical implementation. President Nixon's directive for the Federal Register to be written in layman's terms was a decisive early step. This period also witnessed innovative approaches like the Federal Communications Commission's clear and concise regulations for Citizens Band Radios, a pioneering example of government communication in Plain English.

The Carter administration further reinforced this direction with Executive Orders designed to make government regulations more comprehensible and efficient. This top-down approach encouraged various federal agencies to adopt clearer language, although in a sporadic fashion. The Department of Education's initiative to fund the Document Design Project in the late 1970s also marked a significant advancement. This project, involving a consortium with the American Institutes for Research, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Siegel & Gale, was pivotal in transforming the language used in federal documents into a more accessible format.

The 1980s saw the Plain English movement extend its influence into the legal realm, with legal professionals like Professor Joseph Kimble advocating for clarity in legal writing. His work and the columns he wrote in the Michigan Bar Journal played a crucial role in persuading the legal community of the benefits of plain language.

The 1990s brought a renewed governmental focus on Plain English, with President Clinton's executive orders and memorandums underscoring the importance of straightforward government writing. Vice President Gore’s enthusiastic endorsement of Plain English, exemplified through initiatives like the “No Gobbledygook Awards”, further emphasized its significance in fostering a transparent and accountable government.

The new millennium continued to see influential figures, like Arthur Levitt of the Securities and Exchange Commission, stress the necessity of plain language, especially in complex fields like finance. The Bush administration, although not formally endorsing a plain language initiative, saw many federal departments and agencies incorporate clear communication in their strategic plans. This era culminated in a landmark moment with President Obama’s Plain Writing Act of 2010, mandating the use of plain language in federal documents, a clear testament to the movement's enduring impact and necessity.

These milestones paint a narrative of a movement that steadily grew from a fringe idea to a central policy in government and legal communication. The Plain English movement’s journey is one of gradual acceptance and institutionalization, marked by key moments where political will, advocacy, and practical needs converged to create a lasting impact on how governments and institutions communicate with their constituents.

The Benefits of Plain English

The move towards Plain English in communication, especially in official and public documents, has demonstrated significant benefits with far-reaching implications.

Plain English Enhances Clarity and Understanding

At the core of the Plain English movement is the goal of enhancing clarity and understanding. Plain language means that readers can grasp the intended message more quickly and with greater ease. This is not only a matter of convenience but also a significant improvement in efficiency. For instance, when organizations like the Veterans Benefits Administration revised their communications to plain language, the number of phone calls for clarification dropped dramatically, from about 1,110 to 200 calls in one instance​​. This reduction in confusion and need for clarification saves time and resources for both the sender and the receiver of the information.

Breaking Language Barriers

Plain English also plays a crucial role in breaking language barriers. It makes information accessible to a broader audience, including those who may not have a high level of proficiency in the language in which the communication is written. This inclusivity is vital in a world where information needs to be disseminated across diverse populations. Studies have shown that when information is presented in plain language, compliance with instructions and understanding of content improves significantly. For example, the State of Washington’s Department of Revenue rewrote a letter, which resulted in tripling the number of businesses paying a commonly ignored use tax​​.

Improving Accessibility and Inclusivity

Accessibility and inclusivity are perhaps the most profound benefits of Plain English. It is particularly beneficial for people with cognitive disabilities, low reading literacy, and those new to a topic or language. Plain language helps in making websites and web applications more user-friendly. By putting information in a logical order, using active voice, and employing familiar language, content becomes more accessible to all users. For instance, Harvard’s Digital Accessibility guidelines emphasize that plain language is crucial for people to find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information to accomplish tasks​​.

Criticisms and Challenges of Plain English

While the Plain English movement has undeniably made significant strides in making language more accessible, it has not been without its criticisms and challenges.

Perceived Oversimplification of Language

One of the major criticisms levied against the Plain English movement is its perceived oversimplification of language. Critics argue that in the pursuit of clarity, the richness and nuance of language can be lost. This concern is particularly prevalent in legal and academic circles, where the complexity of language often serves specific functions, such as conveying the intricacies of law or the subtleties of scholarly argument. The challenge here is to strike a balance between simplifying language to enhance comprehensibility while retaining the necessary complexity to convey detailed and specific information accurately.

Balance Between Simplicity and Nuance

Balancing simplicity with the need to maintain nuance and detail is a key challenge for the Plain English movement. As outlined in a paper from the International Journal of Law in Context, while simplifying the language of legal texts can make them more accessible, it doesn't always address the underlying complexities of legal concepts and the systemic nature of law itself. There's an inherent tension between the need for clarity and the accuracy required in legal language, and sometimes, the simplest linguistic forms can lead to significant comprehensibility issues​​.

Moreover, the evolution of the definition of plain language shows a shift from a focus on simplicity to an emphasis on clarity. This evolution reflects a growing recognition that while simplicity is important, it is not sufficient in itself to ensure that a text is easily comprehensible. The Plain English movement has had to contend with the negative connotations of simplicity, working to ensure that efforts to make texts clearer do not inadvertently strip them of necessary complexity​​.

Resistance in Traditional and Academic Circles

There is also resistance to the Plain English movement in traditional and academic circles. This resistance stems partly from a belief that complexity is inherently tied to the intellectual depth and rigor of academic and legal discourse. There is a fear that simplification could lead to a dumbing down of content, potentially undermining the credibility and authority of the text. This challenge is about reconciling the need for clear communication with the cultural and intellectual values that are often associated with complex language use.

A Response to These Criticisms

Reflecting on the Plain English movement, it's clear that its goal is not to oversimplify language but to make it more accessible. Critics worry about losing depth or making things too simple, especially in legal and academic areas. But the movement's focus is on clarity, not just simplicity. It's about finding a balance – making sure language is easy to understand while keeping its necessary complexity. This approach helps everyone, not just experts, understand important information. The key is clear communication, which doesn't mean losing depth but sharing knowledge more effectively.

The Future of Plain English and the Role of Technology and AI

As the Plain English movement evolves, embracing the challenges of modern communication, the role of technology, particularly AI, becomes increasingly significant. Advanced tools like Simplify, which leverages AI, are at the forefront of this transformation. Simplify does more than just aid users in crafting messages in Plain English; it also translates complex texts into more understandable forms. This dual functionality exemplifies the movement's progression from mere simplicity to a broader emphasis on clarity and comprehension.

AI's impact on the Plain English movement is multifaceted. On one hand, it aids in identifying and eliminating jargon, convoluted syntax, and ambiguous language, making texts more accessible to a wider audience. On the other hand, AI-driven tools are beginning to understand and preserve the nuances and subtleties inherent in more complex subjects. This balance is crucial in sectors like law and academia, where precision and nuance are as important as clarity and accessibility.

Moreover, AI technologies are becoming instrumental in customizing communication for diverse audiences. They can analyze the reading level and comprehension abilities of different demographics and tailor the language accordingly, ensuring that information is not just clear, but also relevant and engaging for its intended audience.

In the future, we can expect AI to play an even more significant role. For instance, real-time language simplification tools could become integral in live communication settings, such as conferences or educational platforms, making information instantly accessible to all attendees regardless of their language proficiency. Similarly, AI could be used to continually learn from user feedback, refining its ability to simplify complex texts while retaining their original meaning and context.

The integration of AI in the Plain English movement symbolizes a shift towards a more inclusive, empathetic approach to communication. This technology does not just simplify language; it bridges the gap between different levels of understanding, fostering a more inclusive and connected world. As AI continues to evolve, its potential to revolutionize the way we communicate in clear, accessible language is immense, making the goals of the Plain English movement more achievable than ever.

Wrapping Up

The Plain English movement, advocating for clear and direct language, marks a significant shift from dense, jargon-heavy communication of the past. It emerged from a need for understandable legal documents, government forms, and academic texts. This movement has evolved from early efforts in Britain to the concerted push in post-WWII America for simplified governmental and legal language. Despite challenges like perceived oversimplification and resistance in traditional circles, the movement emphasizes clarity over simplicity. Tools like Simplify, utilizing AI, represent the future of this movement, bridging the gap between clarity and complexity, ensuring accessible communication for all. This evolution from simplicity to clarity showcases the movement's adaptability and enduring relevance in modern communication.

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