From Friday 21 April 2023, New Zealand’s Plain Language Act 2022 is active. Long committed to the cause of clarity in public documents, I am jumping for joy.
Back in 1996, I started training people in business and government how to write clearly. I often worked with Write, a communications training company led by the unstoppable visionary, Lynda Harris. She started the movement for plain language legislation here, and with various allies, we continued advocating. Lynda Harris also set up the Plain Language Awards for New Zealand, which heightened awareness of clear writing and rewarded it. She continued to push for this legislation for 8 years after I withdrew. (I had to, when I retired from my business, Contented.com, in 2015.)
Plain means clear: more interesting than you thought
Even the name of the bill was a potential problem. Why? Because when I say, “plain language”, you think “boring, dumbing down, patronising, childish…” and worse. The EU went for “clarity” instead. “Clear” has one dominant meaning, and people like it. “Plain” has competing meanings such as “dull” and “obvious” and “not pretty.” Not so popular!
However, the plain language movement has a long, strong history worldwide. So plain it is! It’s not particularly easy to make the switch from fancy, convoluted, cliched, jargon-riddled language to simple clarity. Old habits die hard. But it’s worth it on many levels. Dig in, and it’s extremely interesting — at least to me.
Background of the controversial Act
- From Write, powerhouse of the plain language movement: An explanation of the Act, including a video.
- The Guardian: New Zealand passes plain language bill to jettison jargon. Trained journalists have clarity drilled into their backbones. Tess McLure summarises the bill’s rocky road in Parliament.
- The Conversation: The end of jargon: will New Zealand’s plain language law finally make bureaucrats talk like normal people? Andreea S. Calude and Sam Campbell, both academics, write clearly and succinctly about how clear language can save lives and promote democracy and equality. They point out that the act has no teeth, but that obligatory reporting can improve communications.
- ComplyWith: Let’s be clear: a new Act. ComplyWith is a company that helps businesses to comply with New Zealand legislation. They say, “Our legal compliance management tools create the clarity needed to keep everyone out of trouble.”
My accidental credentials as a plain language champion
In a small way, I played a part in this movement. It happened by accident, just because I spent two crucial years working in Japan, and did a few workshops and presentations in China, Cambodia and India.
In 1997, my book Global English for Global Business was published. The key message: we privileged native English speakers could adapt our English to make life easier for ESL listeners and readers.
The book flopped. It was a few years too early. At that time, even the publisher’s marketing rep couldn’t get the point. For her, ESL speakers just had to try harder. End of story. That linguistic smugness is long gone, I hope, now that ESL and EFL speakers dominate the English-speaking world.
Intercultural communication goes far beyond plain English conventions, but the primary goal is the same: to be easily understood.
Then in 1999 my book Web Word Wizardry (1st edition, very different from the 2nd edition) was published here. Again, plain language was my starting point. But what intrigued me more was all the other aspects of “writing for the Web”, as we called it then. “Content” meant something new. In those days I wrote that “web pages” had to be findable, scannable, credible, and bankable. Still true, but well out-of-date 24 years later.
(Bragging point. I have been assured that mine was the first book in the world about creating digital content. The 2nd edition, published in the US, was lost in a publishers’ merger.)
Finally, also in 1999, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of New Zealand commissioned Crash Course in Corporate Communications for their Professional Competency Programme. That was my first book that put plain language front and centre and under the microscope.
Why this over-personal trail of red herrings?
No idea. Except that I am old. In my aging brain, this neural pathway was so well trodden for so long that the urge to follow it was irresistible. Also, I haven’t talked about these things in a long long time.
There’s no doubt about it: structurally, this is not plain language, because I have strayed far from the topic.
Please forgive me and remember my main points:
- I love clarity. Except sometimes in poetry.
- A handful of skills make clear communication possible. They can be learned and practised.
- I’ve taught thousands.
- I have loved exploring the virtues and the traps of plain language, whether digital, printed or spoken, in wildly different situations and settings.
- I rejoice in New Zealand’s Plain Language Act 2022 and congratulate all those responsible.
- I celebrate Lynda Harris, leader of the clear communications pack.