Yay for New Zealand’s Plain Language Act!

New Zealand Government coat of arms. Words: Plain Language Act 2022. Public Act 2022 No 54. Date of assent 21 October 2022. Commencement see section 2

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.

Lynda Harris, winner of the international Mowat Award, Dublin, Ireland in 2015

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

My accidental credentials as a plain language champion

Three books by Rachel McAlpine: Crash Course in Corporate Communications, Global English for Global Business, and Web Word Wizardry.

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.
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4 thoughts on “Yay for New Zealand’s Plain Language Act!

  1. realruth says:

    I have a copy of your “Web Word Wizardry” on my bookshelf. It’s stamped “Cancelled from Christchurch City Libraries”, so I must have bought it at a library book sale.

  2. Rebecca Budd says:

    Thank you for being an brilliant participant in creating clarity in communication. I learned a great deal from this article.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s great. The US was a trailblazer 🙂

  3. Direct language doubly important, I think, in the face of our soundbite culture.

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