Language Matters: Plain Language, If You Please

Have you ever tried to read a government or legal document and found it so confusing that you wondered if it was even written in your language?

Unfortunately, knowing some of the words usually isn't enough.

If you have, you’re not alone.  The problem of unclear, bureaucratic, jargon-filled language in government and law is so huge that leading experts of plain language from around the world met last month for the Clarity 2012 conference to discuss the issue.

More than just creating annoyance, experts say that complicated language can actually be harmful.  If people can’t understand how legal or financial information affects their lives, their security and their futures can be at risk.

In the United States, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 is a law requiring the government to use plain language in newly written public documents.  Other countries, including Norway, Australia, and South Africa are making similar efforts.

To write clearly and simply, it’s important to write for the intended audience.  For example, the word “instruments” makes most people think of musical instruments.  Lawyers, however, think of mortgages, deeds, and other legal documents as “instruments.”

It’s not easy to change a habit, and there has been some resistance to the new simple language requirements.  However, steps are being taken in the right direction.

What do you think about this issue?  Are government and legal documents too confusing?  What else could governments do to make sure that citizens have access to the information they need?

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