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The Arguments Against Plain Language Have Been Refuted

by Professor Joe Kimble, Thomas Cooley Law School

There are many myths about plain language — all of which have been debunked.

First, plain language does not mean baby talk or dumbing down the language. It means writing clearly and effectively for your intended reader. Far from being unsophisticated, it takes skill and hard work.

Second, plain language does not oversimplify or change the meaning or create imprecision. Clarity and precision are complementary goals. The process of revising into plain language will uncover the ambiguities and uncertainties that dense, impersonal, convoluted writing tends to hide.

Third, plain language is not subverted by the need to use professional terms of art. Terms of art are a tiny part of any legal or official document.

Fourth, plain language is not just about plain words and short sentences. Plain language involves all the techniques for clear communication — dozens of them. They range over planning the document, organizing it, constructing sentences, choosing words, and testing mass documents on a group of typical readers.

Fifth, contrary to the claim made by some, there is strong evidence to show that plain language works better than traditional legalese and businessese and officialese. (Let’s just call these “traditional style.”)

How plain language works better than traditional style

In a variety of empirical studies and in the experience of many companies and agencies, plain language has proved to be better than traditional style in many ways.

  • It’s faster to read.
  • Readers are more likely to read plain language documents in the first place. They are less likely to be put off or intimidated
  • Readers are more likely to comply with plain language documents
  • Readers strongly prefer plain language to traditional style.
  • Readers understand plain language better than traditional style. In a number of empirical studies, comprehension improved by anywhere from 10-15% to over 100%.
  • And because readers prefer plain language and understand it better, they’ll make fewer mistakes in dealing with it, have fewer questions and complaints, feel more satisfied, and ultimately save time and money — for themselves and for the writer’s company or agency.