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Plain Language in Sweden, the Results After 30 Years

by Barbro Ehrenberg-Sundin, Senior Adviser, Ministry of Justice, Sweden

Speech given to 600 high-level Mexican public servants at the launching plain language conference Lenguaje ciudadano on the 5th of October 2004.

Señoras y señores!

Es un gran honor para mi estar invitada a esta conferencia para hablar sobre el lenguaje ciudadano de Suecia. El gobierno de Suecia tiene la esperanza de que nuestras experiencias sean de utilidad para la ambiciosa agenda de Buen Gobierno del Señor Presidente.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to talk to you about the Swedish way of making the Swedish legislation and other official texts more comprehensible and easier to read for everybody concerned, including the ordinary citizen.

I hope that what I am going to tell you about the plain language activities in Sweden will give you an insight into the different methods we use and that these methods could help making your presidential Good Government Agenda become very successful.

I would like to tell you about:

  • the plain language experts role in drafting legislation and the methods we use
  • the campaigning of the Government’s Plain Swedish Group
  • the statutes for clear drafting that we have in Sweden
  • the main contents of the guidelines and handbooks for clear drafting that we have developed over the years
  • the new challenge to influence the drafting style in the European Union
  • the arguments for plain language activities

To start at the top

The Swedish way is to start at the very top — firstly, to make the language and structure used in legislation as clear as possible and secondly, to influence the government authorities at all levels, central, regional and local, to start their own plain language activities. These two functions are carried out in the division where I work by plain language experts and by a special committee set up by the Government for promoting plain language activities, the Plain Swedish Group.

First I would like to talk about our approach to clear legislation.

Our approach to clear legislation

The main source of initiative for making legislation and other documents as clear as possible is the Swedish Cabinet Office and its Director-General for Legal Affairs. It says in an Ordinance from 1982 that the director must “encourage the greatest possible simplicity and clarity in the language used in statutes and other decisions.”

Since 1976, this task has been accomplished by language experts and lawyers working as a team, nowadays in the Division for Legal and Linguistic Draft Revision in the Ministry of Justice.

There are five language experts and five legal revisers checking the quality of texts from all the ministries. This final revision one or two weeks before the Government decides on the text is an important checkpoint. No Government Bill (including proposed Acts), no Government Ordinance or State Committee Terms of Reference can be sent to the printers without the division’s approval.

You can say that this team has a key role in legislative drafting in the ministries. The legal revisers check the constitutional and formal quality of the texts, and the language experts ensure that the proposed new or amended draft Acts and Ordinances are as easy as possible to read and understand.

This ongoing process, which has lasted for almost 30 years, emanates from the idea that laws must be clear and user-friendly, because these texts have an impact on decision-making at all levels of society. They also to a large extent influences the wording of more detailed provisions issued by public authorities, as well as other texts down the line like brochures or website information.

Revision alone does not guarantee lucid laws

The final revision is an important method for checking the quality of the texts. But revision alone does not guarantee lucid laws. (Hoppa ev. över följande inom parentes:) (At the final revision stage there is little time and we can deal only with sentence structure, archaic or misleading words, phrases and forms, syntax problems, unclear passive voice, nominalization and other details. The structure and presentation of the contents are difficult to change at such a late stage, but, if there is time, we may do that. Drafters are grateful for our help — by discussing the problems we can often come up with a better solution together.)

Therefore we have, during the last 25 years, developed other methods as well.


  • change ineffective text models and create prototypes that meet the readers’ needs,
  • offer special seminars and training sessions for drafters,
  • write handbooks, guidelines and articles on clear drafting,
  • give advice by telephone or email and on our website Klarspråk (Clear language),
  • take part (as members or special experts) in the work of law commissions.

When the task of a law commission is to redraft old and complicated legislation, one of the language experts may join the commission and work for it part-time. In the 90s, I was a member of the Income Tax Law Commission and this was of course a huge task redrafting very old income tax laws with thousand of amendments over the years into one new and more comprehensible Income Tax Act. Right now one of my colleagues is working with the social insurance legislation, which is extremely complicated and the rewrite looks very promising.

Hoppa ev. över följande inom parentes: (At such an early stage of the legislative process, we have more influence on the drafting of the text. We can help to make the law well structured and easier to navigate so that people can easily find what they are looking for: through contents lists, informative headings, short summaries at the beginning of each chapter telling you what to find there, bullet lists where appropriate, and more information in references to say what the provision referred to is about, among other things. In short: We can use the whole range of plain language principles in the redraft.)

To change ineffective text models

It is not only the way legislation is written that has influenced habits further down the line. Other governmental documents such as Government Commission Reports, Government Administrative Decisions and the explanatory parts of Bills have therefore been changed in order to become more reader-friendly. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, which was the traditional outline of most governmental texts, the drafters now have to focus on the result (the proposals or the decisions of the Government). They then have to argue for that result in a way that gives the reader a clear picture of what they have to decide or act upon. These models are now gradually spreading throughout the agencies at all levels of government. It is obvious that if the Government sets a good example, others will follow. Also the parliament now uses this model in the reports on legislation from the standing committees.

As writing is governed by tradition, it is not at all easy to alter inefficient writing habits. You have to convince the drafters that it is worthwhile to draft in a new way and permissible to do so and then make them do it, as well. The readers’ view is of course of utmost importance. In the case of Government bills, the Members of Parliament really favoured the new model and that was our strongest argument for going on with the reform work. My experience is that such reforms take time and that you need to have a strategy and to be patient, persuasive, diplomatic and persistent. As soon as drafters get accustomed to new models, though, they stop arguing against them. Projects where important standard documents are revised and altered are therefore necessary in all plain language work.

A campaigning group for plain language appointed by the Government in 1993

In order to encourage government authorities all over Sweden to start and carry out their own plain language projects, the Government appointed a Plain Swedish Group with that special task 10 years ago. The group has built a network, a contact at almost every government authority. We are proud to say that our campaigning work has been very successful. The secretary of the group is placed in our division and I have been a member of the group since its inception. The chairman of the group is the Director-General for Legal Affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office.

The group

  • supplies knowledge, ideas and experiences from various plain language projects in Sweden and abroad,
  • arranges plain language conferences,
  • gives lectures on plain language to the authorities,
  • edits a plain language bulletin,
  • awards authorities the Plain Swedish Crystal,
  • provides a lot of useful information and material at the language experts and the group’s joint website:

Hoppa ev. över följande inom parentes: (The group consists of judges, linguists, information managers and political scientists, nine people alltogether, being commissioned to be members of the group on a voluntary basis along with their normal jobs. The participation of the judges from the Supreme Courts is of utmost importance to our work, as their names and positions make it easier to convince other lawyers and senior officials that plain language is worthwhile. One language consultant, the secretary of the group, is the one doing the job.)

The impact of the Plain Swedish Group is impressive, despite the fact that its resources are very limited. More than half of all Swedish government authorities are currently involved in systematic plain language work. Ten years ago, in 1994, when the group started its campaigning, 65 percent of the authorities felt no need to participate in plain language work at all.

In 2001, the Plain Swedish Group initiated an evaluation of the comprehensibility of texts from Swedish public authorities. This evaluation showed that archaic, difficult and obscure words as well as long and complicated sentences have almost disappeared from the bureaucratic language. Instead, there remains a lot to be done in other respects to make the documents more user friendly.

The main comprehensibility problems lie in the lack of adaptation to the reader’s needs, in contents as well as in structuring and presentation of the contents. When it comes to content and structure, the reader’s perspective is not taken into account and as to presentation, the texts often lack meta-comments to guide the readers through the text, such as summaries and informative subheadings.

Based on the results of the evaluation a check list was developed, that is to be used by officials. This check list has 35 questions, all crucial to the comprehensibility of the text, questions concerning the readers’ needs, the message, text structure and textual cohesion, syntax and words and phrases. The checklist was developed into an interactive web test in 2002, and we are now developing the web test further.

Statutes for clear drafting

In Sweden we also have a legal basis for the plain language work and this, of course, helps promoting our activities.

The first provision is the Ordinance on the Duties of the Government Offices (adopted first time in 1982). This (article 26) prescribes that the Director-General for Legal Affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office shall together with the senior civil servant at the Ministry of Justice, who is publisher of the Swedish Code of Statutes, “encourage the greatest possible simplicity and clarity in the language used in statutes and other decisions.” (OH-bild)

This provision is the legal basis for our work within the ministries. As for the hundreds of government authorities around Sweden, the legal basis is found in the following provisions:

  • There is the Law of Administration (1986:223, article 7), which says that government authorities “must endeavour to express themselves in a comprehensible manner.” (OH-bild)

  • Also, there is the Government Authorities and Agencies Ordinance (1995:1322, article 7), which requires the director-general to ensure that the authority uses a plain Swedish approach when drafting official documents. (OH-bild)

The support form the Plain Swedish Group is meant to help the authorities comply with these basic provisions.

Similar provisions can be found in ancient Swedish legislation, from the times of King Charles XII at the beginning of the 18th century (1713). So, we have a long tradition here.

Ordinance for the Royal Chancery: His Majesty the King requires that the Royal Chancellery in all written documents endeavour to write in clear and plain Swedish and not to use, as far as possible, foreign words.

I will now come back to some of the guidelines we have developed during the years, guidelines that are recommended and issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The first guidelines for clear language in laws appeared as early as in 1967. They look very unpretentious, but their recommendations were sensational at the time, at least for most lawyers.

The title is Language in acts and other statutes and it is stated there that “if the language in acts and other statutes is simple and clear, this will have an impact on the language used in other official texts.” By this statement the Government meant to say that from a democratic point of view all official texts must be clear and user-friendly. If they are not, you can guarantee neither openness nor efficiency in public administration. Nor is it possible to guarantee access to the law and the rule of law.

Hoppa ev. över följande: (The recommendations and examples of these first guidelines ask the drafters:

  • to use modern and comprehensible vocabulary and modern forms;
  • to avoid “the noun disease” and unusual prepositional phrases;
  • to avoid long and complex sentences with embedded subordinate clauses;
  • to avoid vagueness and unnecessary variation.)

In 1979, a little supplement appeared, More guidelines for the language of legislation. This supplement offers principles on e.g. how to make the language gender-neutral, how to use headings and sub-headings and how to use lists for multiple conditions, requirements or rules.

But, the most important thing here was that the Government declared that the drafters had to follow the guidelines, not only when drafting new Acts and Ordinances but also when drafting amendments. It prescribes that as soon as you make a substantial amendment, you must also modernise the language of the amended article, if necessary. In this way there is a constant modernisation going on in legislation (, and the consolidated version of a law contains both old-fashioned style and contemporary, ordinary language.)

During the 1980s, we published more guidelines, for instance the so-called Black list, showing inflated, formal and difficult words and phrases alongside their more comprehensible alternatives. When the list was published in 1988, the alternatives had already been used in new and amended legislation and approved of by the directors-general for legal affairs in each ministry. So nobody could really argue against them and claim that the language experts were impoverishing the legal language, which can sometimes be heard from experts, when they feel that their jargon is criticized.

Also the central authorities got their own handbook on how to draft regulations in the mid-1980s.

There are also guidelines on how to draft, for instance, Government Bills, administrative decisions, State Commission Reports and State Committee Terms of Reference and right now we are editing the 6th edition of a very widely spread style guide, “Myndigheternas skrivregler,” addressed to the ministries, the Parliament and all public authorities in Sweden. You will find all the guidelines on our website.

Initiatives in the European Union

As you might know, Sweden has been a member of the European Union for roughly ten years now. When existing European Union legislation was being translated into Swedish in the early 90s, many Swedes were worried about the complicated language used in it. The translators adopted the French style with long articles and long and complicated sentences, as the requirement is not to split sentences up. One sentence in French or English must be one sentence in all other language versions. Even in other sense the quality of the translation is very directly connected to the quality of the original.

So, what to do? At the moment I have the special assignment to coordinate Swedish efforts to put plain language on the European Union’s agenda.

What I try to do is to encourage the Swedish officials who take part in various working groups in the Union to use what influence they have to improve the wording and structure of the legal documents handled by those groups. I have also created a network so that Swedish translators in the European Union institutions and officials in the ministries and Government authorities easily can get into contact with each other. This is very important, as decisions often have to be very quick as to which terminology to use in certain context. If a suitable term is not used, the consequences may echo through the various kinds of ensuing legislation for years to come.

I also submit Swedish comments on the regulatory reform work in the EU, so that plain language issues will become an important part of better regulation activities throughout Europe.

As a matter of fact, there are now lots of activities going on in the Union. Sweden welcomes the many statements in favour of improved drafting quality which you can find in several recent documents, like interinstitutional agreements on common guidelines for the quality of drafting of Community legislation and on Better lawmaking, which are now followed up by practical guidelines. But still, there is a long way to go.

Hoppa ev. över följande: (Even if it is stated in the introduction to a recent Action Plan for Better Lawmaking that “by being written in a less complicated style, the Community legislation should be easier to implement for the Member States and operators concerned and easier for everyone to read and understand,” those words have to be put into practice.)

As I have mentioned, the Swedish experience is that there is a lot to be gained if language experts and lawyers, as well as experts from other disciplines, cooperate in these matters. And that political support and support from central administration is crucial. This is also needed in the European Union.

Skilled plain language consultants

As for skilled language experts we are rather fortunate in Sweden, as there is a special 2,5 years Swedish language consultancy program at the University of Stockholm. This program started in the late 70s and it provides the market with consultants with a solid knowledge of all aspects of the Swedish language and of communication. The programme includes theoretical and practical aspects. Courses are given in, for example, text linguistics, discourse analysis, semantics, pragmatics, Swedish grammar, rhetorics, psycho- and sociolinguistics and language technology. From the programme the students learn how to write clear, precise and straightforward Swedish, tailored to the readers’ needs.

There are now almost 300 graduate consultants working on the permanent staff of different public and private organisations or on a free lance basis.

Why plain language is worthwhile?

The benefits of clear and effective communication between government and the public and business are well defined and approved of in Sweden.

Plain language writing helps maintain faith in public institutions, it surely enhances democracy and rule of law, it makes administration more efficient and thus saves both time and money. And last but not least, it inspires the civil servants to do a good job.

It is, of course, a natural aim in a democracy to want to ensure openness and clarity within the public administration. In Sweden, the principle of public access to documents was expressed the first time in 1766 in the Freedom of the Press Act, now a constitutional law. This principle

  • facilitates the free democratic exchange of views, thereby contributing to the democratic legitimacy of decisions,
  • strengthens the control of the administration by the public and the media, and
  • contributes to making the administration more efficient, which is the reason why corruption is a rare phenomena in Sweden.

But the principle of accessibility to documents does not function well if documents are not easy to read and understand. So, you can say that plain language is a prerequisite of openness.

The actual cost of poor writing in government and law are certainly beyond calculating. In Sweden, there are no large-scale evaluations or inquiries made to measure the actual costs of poorly written documents or the actual gains of rewriting documents in plain language. Some authorities measure the time and cost wasted as a result of complaints, confusion and claims occasioned by, for instance, a certain letter or form sent out by the authority in question.

This year, the National Social Insurance Board sent out a letter to 900 000 senior citizens about changes in their pension benefits. As this letter was written in legalese, it caused thousands of inquiries from people who were upset as they didn’t understand the message. It cost the Insurance Board a lot of money just to take care of the phone calls and e-mails, not to talk about the heavy image losses they sustained just because of this one letter.

What they did was to rewrite this letter and others in plain language, testing them on focus groups including the intended readers (senior citizens). They made three tests this spring, because the rewrites were not good enough and they had to improve them step by step. The cost for these focus groups tests and rewrites was marginal, compared to the cost the first letter has involved.

The efforts right now in Sweden, to make the majority of citizens use the Internet services that all Swedish authorities provide, are, of course, in the long run both time and cost saving for the government. In this context, the use of plain language is of utmost importance: the information given at websites has to be comprehensible to everybody using it, otherwise nothing will be gained by using the new technology. It is evident, that the self-service function made possible by the new e-society won’t be worth the effort if instructions and information on websites is not easy to understand.

All information on the authorities’ website must be adapted also to our immigrants, that aren’t fluent in Swedish yet (about 1/9th of the entire population do not have Swedish as their mother tongue), and to all citizen’s with difficulties in reading normal texts because of a certain handicap.

The central tax authority, for instance, offers all kinds of information and service on its Internet Portal, including the possibility to approve of your income tax return form, already filled in by the authority with your figures for the year in question. This year, six and a half million Swedes had the opportunity to complete their tax return on the Internet or by sms (using their cell-phones). More than one million made use of this possibility. The ongoing simplification of tax return forms, which started in the late 70s, is only one example of a reform in Sweden, that includes rewrites and simplified routines as well as making use of new technology. The guiding star of this reform has been and still is to make life easier for the general public and to reduce costs at the same time.

Summing up

To sum up, I would like to emphasize the importance of a few necessary elements in plain language work:

  • Support from politicians and managing directors is crucial.
  • A legal basis that emphasize the importance of clear language and effective communication is helpful.
  • A genuine cooperation between plain language experts, lawyers and other experts when reforming texts gives the best result.
  • Involve the intended readers while testing the texts.
  • Authorities must have adequate resources to plan and carry out systematic plain language activities.
  • Last but not least: Never give up!

Thank you very much for your attention.