Say it plain

by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, September 2010

A new movement advocates simplicity and straightforwardness in our communications.


Years ago I was in a writers’ group that met monthly to ruminate on our varied poems and tomes in progress. Among us were those who loved elaborate vocabulary and convoluted sentences. The bigger the word the greater the genius behind it, the logic seemed to go. There was, according to this line of thinking, no greater evidence of a writer’s intellectual superiority than a confounded reader.

Many professional documents seem to be entrenched in this same premise. In the past year I’ve updated my will, settled my sister’s estate and cashed in a few stocks that required the filling in of bloated, redundant forms. We’ve also ploughed through the usual documentation that comes with updated bank and credit cards, renewed insurance policies and the ever-more-tortuous income tax returns. None of this stuff is fun to read and at times the obscure language and sheer wordiness seemed a deliberate ploy to keep us baffled.

The “help” options for these materials weren’t especially straightforward either. The will required a few trips back to the lawyer before we could confidently assume that it represented our wishes. Our questions concerning the other documents were directed to toll-free telephone numbers that lead to electronic menus and the occasional representative who was often more confused than we were.

Intricate paperwork and vague instructions have long been a lucrative way to keep the consumer dependent on the provider but that’s finally beginning to change, thanks to a Plain Language movement on the rise. Plain Language is based on the belief that the more complex the idea, the greater the need to express it as clearly and succinctly as possible. Studies have shown that most people, regardless of education level and reading ability, prefer a clear and readable document to one that is teeming with complex sentence structure and roundabout vocabulary.

But not everyone agrees with the principles of Plain Language. Critics fear that its use in everyday documents will result in the simplification or “dumbing down” of language and ideas. In fact, the opposite is true: The sparse and precise writing called for in Plain Language requires a clear understanding of the subject matter. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, you have to know what you’re talking about before you can explain it well to someone else. Only then can complex thinking be presented with startling clarity. In a Plain Language document every word is a working word.

The use of Plain Language enhances literacy, which is both the ability to read and to understand what is being read. A document entangled in long-winded and/or very technical writing doesn’t achieve that, doesn’t acknowledge that we all have some degree of limited literacy in one context or another. For example, I had difficulty deciphering the extended health agreement—the living will, essentially—that our lawyer had readied for us. A first-time mortgage applicant might find it a struggle to grasp all the conditions and considerations that become binding once the agreement is signed. A person with generally low literacy who misunderstands complex prescription or other healthcare instructions might suffer serious but preventable ill-effects.

Supporters of Plain Language insist that consumers should not have to bear the cost of information presented in a skewed or cumbersome way. Language that is precise but so dragged down by wordiness or “swaddled in obscurity” as one writer for Plain puts it (visit the website at serves no good purpose at best and can cause untold and unnecessary harm and hardship at worst.

Increasingly the professions are realizing this and beginning to draft more genuinely helpful materials for their clientele. We’re seeing this user-friendly trend emerge in the health, financial, environmental, computer and legal fields, the result of which is a better sharing of knowledge and hence a fairer distribution of power between the consumer and provider.

In a world where people are juggling so much information just to get through a typical day, Plain Language can’t come at a better time.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic has recently returned from Singapore where she and her husband presented a Plain Language Workshop as part of a health literacy contract with that country’s government.