In 2016, an analysis of United Kingdom government websites discovered that the majority of central government and local government sites “failed to meet plain English guidelines.” Visible Thread, a content quality management resource, discovered that 92% of central government and 66% of local government sites didn’t meet recommended readability or plain language standards.
So why is this newsworthy? What does that even mean – “failed to meet plain English guidelines?” If we’re writing in the same language, aren’t we speaking to each other plainly? Well, depending on your location around the world, you’ve likely heard of “Plain English” or “Plain Language" initiatives.
How Plain Language Started
In 1946, a UK author happened to pen an essay ridiculing politics and the English language, in which he claimed political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He believed that government language was often vague in an effort to cloud and/or distract from the truth and possibly control its constituents, an issue which came into greater focus in a longer piece, a book called “1984.”
Yes – that “1984.”
After George Orwell’s essay was published, a guide to “Plain Words” was written for UK officials to avoid elaborate writing. The trend continued, and ever since 1979, the Plain English Campaign has been fighting against “gobbledygook, jargon, and misleading public information.” And in 2010, the Plain Writing Act became a federal requirement in the United States.
So now we know how it started – but still, what exactly is plain English? A way to communicate effectively with the larger population? Is it something you just know it when you see it?
The Center for Plain Language states that “communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can readily find what they need, understand it, and use it.”
Practical Application of Plain Language
In practical application, plain language should focus on a summary of information before stating the details, providing transitions to link sentences together, avoiding jargon, and using active voice rather than passive.
However, plain language isn’t just limited to words – it also includes layout, design, and graphics. Are there headings to guide the reader? Do the font and type size make it easy to read? Is there contrast between the text and the background? Does the layout include enough white space?
It’s also important to note the Center for Plain Language’s final requirement for plain language – not only should a reader be able to find the information they need in a document and fully understand it, but they must be able to act on that information or follow through on next steps.
For example, can someone reading information on a healthcare website find what they need within the document, understand what they’re reading, and use the information for next steps, whether that’s scheduling an appointment or calling in?
The Benefits of Using Plain Language
Plain language can be viewed as just another requirement and added work, but by presenting clear information and directions, content contributors can actually save time and money.
The Visible Thread analysis of UK Government websites concluded “the cost benefits achieved by improving clarity on websites and allowing citizens to complete error-free operations online are significant. Website users avoid the need to revert to other means of communication, such as telephone or face-to-face interactions, to clarify information.”
For now, plain language and readability of website content is mainly a government initiative. But these requirements can serve as a standard for other industries looking to present their readers and customers with concise, clear information – and ultimately, to provide a better user experience.
The great news? At Siteimprove, we've been working on some new updates within our tool that can help your team with readability and assist with plain language on your website. So get excited, and stay tuned! In the meantime, if you want to see what plain language looks like in action, download the Minnesota Department of Revenue case study to learn how one team incorporated plain language into their web governance strategy.