Plain Language Q & A

Notebook entry #6

For this week’s entry I have decided to go back to my first three notebook entries and answer some of the questions put to me by my Literacy Learning professor Dr. Susan Walsh.

Is plain language assumed to be neutral?

That depends on the document’s intended audience. The goal of plain language is for the person reading the document to understand it on first reading. If I’m writing a manual for Nova Scotia snowplough operators, I try to find as much out about them as I can and target my writing accordingly. So in that case, no, plain language is not neutral. If all the Nova Scotia snowplough operators are white males in their 50s who watch baseball in the summer, football in the fall, and hockey in the winter, then I can write to them and leave whole swaths of people out. I can use gendered pronouns and sports metaphors, and popular culture references going back to the ’70s. The document will be fairly easy to test as my audience is a small, almost homogeneous group.

The difficulty comes in writing for “the general public.” In my experience, these documents are mainly aimed at adults in Nova Scotia who are affected by a particular government service. And here I do try to be neutral. How?

  • Use language that is gender-neutral; avoid gendered pronouns and opt for the singular “they” or dispense with pronouns altogether.
  • Use the simplest terms possible and write in the active voice in order to reach the least literate in the target audience. In my experience, no one has ever complained that a document is too easy to read.
  • Use images such as illustrations, maps, charts, and comic strips if these will convey the message more clearly than words alone. The goal, again, is to reach those members of the audience who may have trouble with written text.
  • Test the document with a small group that is representative of the target audience and use their feedback to remove any barriers to understanding.

Who is “the general public” and to what extent is this (seemingly) homogeneous entity actually raced, classed, gendered in terms of literacy?

Often when I ask a client, usually workers in a government department, who the target audience for a particular project is, the response is, “the general public.” When I get this response, I know I am dealing with an audience that is definitely NOT homogeneous. For example, I am currently working on a new edition of the Nova Scotia Driver’s Handbook. For this project, I know a few things about my target audience:

  • They can be from any race and many users of this booklet will be new immigrants to Canada from countries with whom Nova Scotia has no reciprocal driver’s licence agreement. For many, English will be a second, third, or subsequent language.
  • Everyone in the audience plans to drive a vehicle in Nova Scotia, therefore they will have access to one but that does not mean that they own their own vehicle. A driver’s licence could be a condition of employment where the employee is expected to drive a company car.  So members of the audience can be from any “class.”
  • My audience is male and female.
  • All readers are 16 years of age or older as that is the minimum age allowed for a Nova Scotia learner’s permit. Since they can come from anywhere in the world, I do NOT assume that they are reading English at a Grade 10 level.

Is there an assumption that language is a vehicle for transporting ideas from one person to another in a neutral kind of way?

The short answer is  yes. In my work, the message comes from my client and is transported through my words and any images I suggest to the audience. As discussed above, there are ways to try to do this in a neutral way.

Who created the categories of readers referred to in Reflections on Literacy?

I had heard of these levels through working with Diane Macgregor, Communications Nova Scotia’s plain language specialist but I see that they bear a strong resemblance to the levels reported on in the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey  (IALS) conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada released in 2000 ( On this website, literacy is divided into 5 levels but levels 4 and 5 are merged as the site breaks down the Canadian population as follows:

  • “22% of Canadians are at level 1. People at this level have difficulty reading and have few basic skills or strategies for decoding and working with text. Generally, they are aware that they have a literacy problem.
  • 26% of Canadians are at level 2. These are people with limited skills who read but do not read well enough. Canadians at this level can deal only with material that is simple and clearly laid out. They often do not recognize their limitations.
  • 33% of Canadians are at level 3. They can read well but may have problems with more complex tasks. This level is considered by many countries to be the minimum for successful participation in society.
  • 20% of Canadians are at levels 4 or 5. People at these levels have strong literacy skills, including a wide range of reading skills and many strategies for dealing with complex materials. These Canadians can meet most reading demands and can handle new reading challenges.”

What are the complexities of labelling people as “good”/”poor” readers, etc.?

First, I don’t think individual adults should ever be labelled this way and that is not how plain language is used. However, tools like the IALS are helpful when we design documents that are intended to give information to a wide range of people. It is useful to know that a certain segment of the population has such difficulty reading and working with written text that we might abandon that method of transmitting information in favour of offering videos for example. This was done by the Nova Scotia government during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. At immunization centres across the province people were required to watch a short video that explained the risks and benefits of the vaccine. Someone in government must have realized that handing printed brochures to people containing the same information would not constitute informed consent in the same way that the video would. It is also helpful to know that most of us, particularly when dealing with information outside our own area of expertise, fall within the 81 per cent of  Canadians  with less than “strong literacy skills” rather than the 20 per cent who seem to be able to handle everything.

In reference to legalese, medicalese, etc., would you agree that is is what [Judith] Baker calls “professional language”?

No. In my first post, when I said “Lawyers spend so much time talking to other lawyers that they’ve forgotten how to talk to everyone else … [and that] the same is true of the medical profession, the financial sector, and government,” I meant that the language is less about the necessary words and phrases for doing the job and conveying meaning and more about the comfort that comes from using jargon and convoluted sentence structure as a show of belonging to a particular privileged group. To me, professional language, as Baker used the term, is a mechanic saying “carburetor” to refer to that particular part of a vehicle as that is the correct name. Often lawyers, doctors and other professionals move beyond precise terminology to elevate their own speech and writing. For example,

  • legalese -“Compensation will be in the amount of $100,000.00 per annum.”  instead of “You will be paid $100,000.00 a year.”
  • medicalese – signs in hospitals would be more helpful if they read “kidney care” instead of “nephrology.”

How do [Judith] Baker’s and [Lisa] Delpit’s articles relate to plain language work?

I think Baker and Delpit are practising a kind of plain language in their work by reaching their students in the language that those students use on a daily basis. From here, Baker and Delpit bring their students to “standard English” and allow them to find the contexts in which to use it.

We have to remember that we all benefit from plain language.  As the IALS shows, 81 per cent of the Canadian population has less than “strong literacy skills.” Almost 50 per cent have ” difficulty reading and have few basic skills” or “limited skills who read but do not read well enough.” Those who have strong literacy skills still benefit from “material that is simple and clearly laid out” because we aren’t always at the top of our game. We get tired. We get bored. We’re not motivated to digest the information being given to us. Plain language is about ensuring your audience understands your work on the first read and not putting up barriers to that understanding.

To quote Hippocrates, “The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”


Does “standard” English perpetuate inequality?

Notebook entry #4 2011-10-09

It’s been almost 100 years since George Bernard Shaw published his play, Pygmalion. In it, Shaw sends up British society by changing a woman’s class simply by changing the way she speaks and dresses. Cockney Liza Doolittle is destined to live forever in an unheated tenement making a meager living selling flowers until Professor Henry Higgins decides to use her in an experiment. He bet that he could change her destiny through “phonetics,” teaching her the “correct” way to speak English.

How is that different from what some in literacy are doing today? As Lisa Delpit does when she says, “All we can do is provide students with the exposure to an alternate form, and allow them the opportunity to practice that form in contexts that are nonthreatening, have a real purpose, and are intrinsically enjoyable. If they have access to alternative forms, it will be their decision later in life to choose which to use. We can only provide them with the knowledge base and hope they will make appropriate [emphasis mine] choices.” (Language Diversity and Learning in Beyond heroes and holidays: A practical guide to K-12 anti-racist, multicultural education and staff development, Lee, E., Menkart, D, and Okazawa-Rey, M.N. eds p. 157)

Isn’t this the Henry Higgins school of thought? OK, maybe it’s progressed a bit. In a preface to Pygmalion, Shaw makes no secret of the fact that he believes that there is one way to speak English and all other ways are wrong: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like.” ( Delpit, on the other hand, respects the language her students come to school with and uses it to teach them, or make available to them, alternate forms of speech including that of the dominant culture.  But the end appears to be the same; only a certain form of English is acceptable to those who hold the keys to power and success. Learn to use this language and you will get ahead. Shaw may simply have seen that as learning to speak English correctly, while Delpit sees it as using an accepted form.

But if everyone learns to speak and write like those in the dominant culture while maintaining their “home” languages, what is gained and what is lost? Aren’t we still accepting the “systemic form of inequality” inherent in the language we speak? (Andersen and Hill Collins p. 61)

Because language (or at least accent and dialect), in my view, is as much a systemic form of inequality  as race, class, and gender  as stated by by Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins in Systems of Power and Inequality published in Race, class, and gender: an anthology (p. 61)

If you don’t think so, try this: would Americans have elected to the presidency a man or woman who said: “Donch y’all be axin’ what yo’ country can do fo’ you. Ax what y’all can do fo’ yo’ country.”? Would such a saying have become famous and quoted 50 years after it was said? Would anyone who speaks like that even be elected to minor public office? Would they be promoted to higher levels of management?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

It goes on to say that such discrimination is allowed where it is intended to improve the “conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Note that while “national and ethnic origin” is present in the legislation, language is not. And, I wager, it never will be. Why? Because, as Shaw so aptly demonstrated almost 100 years ago, language can be learned. But there are two problems with this. One is pointed out by Shaw himself when he has Liza tell Higgins:  “You told me, you know, that when a child is brought to a foreign country, it picks up the language in a few weeks, and forgets its own. Well, I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours.”

How long will it be before students who have mastered “standard” English forget their home languages? What is their perception of those who have not mastered the switch? Do they in turn become part of the dominant culture by virtue of their language? Is this a good thing?

The other problem is that the dominant culture gets to change what counts as “standard” English without warning. One who is new to the group, risks betraying their origins if they fail to keep up with the new lingo. So, not only is language a systemic form of inequality, it is one that is constantly being tailored to keep people out of the dominant group.

Disagree? Try this fun quiz. The following is a list of financial terms from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Jot down your best-guess definition. Then go to the Glossary of Financial Crisis Terms  on the bank’s website to see how well you did.

  • Asset-backed commercial paper
  • CDO squared
  • derivative
  • hedge fund
  • haircut
  • liar loan
  • moral hazard
  • repo
  • special purpose vehicles
  • tranche

As an added bonus, once you checked the definition, how easy was it to understand?