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Published on June 28th, 2011 | by Rahel Bailie

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Plain Language comes to the US – for real, this time

The US will join the UK and Australia, which have Plain Language policies. As of October, the US will adopt the principles of Plain Language that makes content more accessible to low-literacy and ESL readers. Among the first initiatives was to design forms in plain language so that the average person could actually understand and fill them in, without intervention from government counter staff.

History of Plain Language – starting with the UK

Here’s an example from the plainlanguage.gov website:

BEFORE: Disaster Unemployment Assistance provides financial assistance to individuals whose employment or self-employment has been lost or interrupted as a direct result of a major disaster declared by the President of the United States. Before an individual can be determined eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance, it must be established that the individual is not eligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits (under any state or federal law).

PROPOSED CHANGE: You can get financial help from Disaster Unemployment Assistance if your job was lost or interrupted as a direct result of a major disaster declared by the President of the United States. To be eligible, you must show that you are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits (under any state or federal law).

No writer should feel put out by having to give up the words shall, pursuant, promulgated, thereunder, commencing, in accordance with, herein, precluded, heretofore, evidenced, and practicable, as banned by the government. Nor will I bemoan the fact that “we” replaces the “the government,” that “you” replaces “citizens,” and that “please” replaces “it is requested.” In fact, I wouldn’t mind if we had to give us words like incarcerated, in order to, initiated – what’s wrong with jailed, to, and started as simpler terms?

Though Canada hasn’t officially adopted Plain Language for government communications, there is a long history Plain Language in various areas of citizen-facing communications. In British Columbia, the movement was particularly active in the legal area, making contracts and public legal education more understandable.

Plain Language resources for writers

Using comics to explain legal proceedings


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



One Response to Plain Language comes to the US – for real, this time

  1. Pingback: You understand your rights – right? Maybe not. | Vancouver-based PR specialist with expertise in media relations and public relations

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