Plain English vs. legalese

Recently one of my students, when she has been asked what plain English is, has remarked that plain English is street English and that answer seems to be a common misconception. Plain English has often been criticised for advocating simple, leading to simplistic, drab, kindergarten, babyish and unsophisticated English which lacks precision. Quite contrary, in real life the precision that is postulated in legalese makes it unintelligible. In fact legal writing has become synonymous with poor writing.

However, plain language is a phenomenon that has already gone beyond plain English only. In Poland the idea of plain language was popularised in 2012 when Plain Polish Section was set up at the Faculty of Polish at the University of Wroclaw, Poland. Its main aim is to prepare a Polish version of plain language – a communication style that is comprehensible to mass audience. Plain language is a variant of a national language recommended to authors and institutions producing texts for general public, so called “every citizen”. The idea of plain language movement is to include into public life the groups of citizens that are excluded due to their inability to comprehend official texts, e.g. administrative, legal, journalistic, corporate, advertising, etc. Plain language text is to be understood by an everyman, irrespective of his/her education and knowledge at first reading. Martin Cutts (1998), a research director of the Plain Language Commission in the United Kingdom, defines plain English as the writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a cooperative, motivated person a good chance of understanding the document at the first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood. Plain language standard has already been legally enforced in several countries. In the USA President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 on October 13, 2010. According to this law federal agencies must communicate with the public in such a way that the public can understand and use. On January 18, 2011, Obama issued a new Executive Order, „E.O. 13563 – Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review” which obliges American regulatory system to make sure that their regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand. Other countries where plain language is mandatory include Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK. An interesting case study from Portugal – a country with the highest illiteracy rate in the EU – is presented in a Sandra Fisher-Martin’s talk entitled “The right to understand” on TED.com.

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