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.”

Want to help someone learn? Learn from them first.

Notebook entry #3 2011-10-02

It seems a little trite to say, but I really do believe that in order to teach anyone anything in any way, you have to learn a little from them first.

I am not a teacher in the formal sense of the word. I do not have a BEd and I do not have a class of people to whom I am responsible for imparting knowledge. So when I read the suggested readings for my Literacy Learning class this week, I initially felt distant from them, that they did not relate to my experience.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I am a teacher of sorts but I am separated from students by a document. I have “taught” snowplow operators the rules and rituals they need to do their jobs. I have “taught” farmers about transporting their produce and fuel. I have “taught” recreational vehicle riders rules and best practices related to riding ATVs, snowmobiles, and dirt bikes. And I have “taught” tourists and students about Nova Scotia history and our democratic system of government. Sometimes I do this without ever meeting them, and that’s a shame. My writing is always  better when I can get to know my audience.

That’s how I related to this week’s readings. I particularly enjoyed those by Lisa Delpit and Judith Baker. Both women wrote about the importance of learning from their students before they can teach them. I particularly enjoyed Judith Baker’s respect for her students’ “home” English (51) and how she used her students’ understanding of that form of English as a basis for teaching “formal” English, as discussed in Trilingualism, a chapter in The skin that we speak: thoughts on language and culture in the classroom.  It was interesting to see how Baker’s respect for the way her students spoke opened their ears to the different forms of English they speak and hear around them. It also gave them the confidence to choose which form of English to use in different circumstances.

“As young people become less fearful of being manipulated or disrespected, I think they can become engaged in the study of their own language competence,” Baker wrote. “They can weigh their options, choose how they want to speak and write in each new setting.” (59)

Baker also found that when “formal” English held real meaning for her students, they were able to use it correctly and naturally. This happened when her students gave presentations related to their technical classes. “… had I not seen the student in this other language dimension, I would not have realized how easily they moved within it or how eager they would be to do so.” (60)

Delpit wrote about the importance of not confusing “dialect intervention with reading instruction.” (160). She illustrates her point with the example of a student who clearly understands the meaning of the sentence he is reading but, in the teacher’s opinion, mispronounces the words and so reads the sentence “wrong.”

Delpit also writes about the different ways different cultures tell stories and finds a bias in education in favour of the “white” way of doing this.

Delpit concludes that “if teachers hope to avoid negatively stereotyping the language patterns of their students, it is important that they be encouraged to interact with, and willingly learn from, knowledgeable members of their students’ cultural groups.” (157)

I think George J. Sefa Dei was getting at the same thing in his conversation with Meredith Lordan published in Language, Linguistic Discrimination and Polyvocality: Bringing Language into Discussions of Discrimination and Racism published in The poetics of anti-racism.

In speaking about different accents and dialects, Dei says, “There is … the obligation on the part of the listener to work with what is being said.”. He adds, “There’s … a punishment if one speaks in a different accent or in ways that others claim they can’t understand or hear.” (33)

I agree with him but only to a certain point. That is, when we are in a position of teaching, however we may define it, we must be open to listening and learning from those we purport to teach. So, in that sense, it is, as Dei says, our obligation to work with what is being said by the learner.

However, as a teacher, it is also our job to speak and write as clearly as possible to our audience taking into consideration the way our audience understands. That is why, in the field of plain language, testing is so important.

If I create a document aimed at a specific audience with the goal of them learning a specific thing or accomplishing a specific task, it is up to me to make sure they understand. It is not up to my audience to learn to understand what I have done. If my audience doesn’t understand, it’s my fault, not theirs.

So how do I find out if my document works? Testing. This is very rarely done but it is so important for letting us know whether our documents work. has a brief but helpful section on its website dedicated to testing documents for plain language.

After testing a document, it is important not to criticize the audience, but to fix any shortfalls we have in making the message clear.

As Diana Athill said: “Writing shouldn’t come between the reader and what’s being described. It should be as transparent as possible.”