Thursday, October 28, 2010

The plain-language world has changed: new plain-language law in the US, the professionalisation of the field, 2 recent conferences

Christopher Balmford, MD

A changing world
The plain-language world is changing. Here are 2 highlights:
First, on 13 October 2010, the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, signed a law that requires federal agencies to use plain language in most government documents. The new law is largely thanks to the efforts of the Center for Plain Language — in particular, its Chair, Annetta Cheek . You can read about the new law on the Center’s site. The Act requires US government agencies to create and fill senior positions with the task of ensuring, and reporting on, compliance with the new law.
Second, the 3 major plain-language organisations have combined to form an International Plain Language Working Group which is producing an Options Paper Professionalising plain language. The paper discusses systems for setting standards for plain-language documents and systems for accrediting plain-language practitioners. It also considers a range of related topics — namely: a definition of “plain language”, more research on what makes communications clear, more advocacy for plain language, and an international plain-language institution. (By the way, the major plain-language organisations are Clarity, which has a focus on clear legal communication, internationally, PLAIN, which is about plain language in all fields and internationally, and the Center, which is about plain language in all fields but has a focus on the US.)
The new US law is likely to lead to increase in plain language everywhere. The activities of the Working Group further confirm that the plain-language world:
  • should no longer be seen as “the plain-language movement”;
  • but rather should be seen as “the plain-language profession”.
Clarity’s conference in Lisbon, Portugal
All these topics were explored recently at Clarity’s 4th international conference held in Lisbon, Portugal. For me, the highlights of the conference were:
  • the various presentations about how design can help communication — the conference was supported by the International Institute for Information Design (IIID);
  • the increased focus on testing documents on sample readers being a key part of rewriting documents.
  • the government’s plain language initiatives that the conference triggered; and
  • the public debate involving the legal profession that those initiatives generated.
By hosting our conference in Portugal, Clarity has dramatically promoted plain Portuguese ─ especially in the legal world.
As the President of Clarity, it was wonderful to see these developments. My deep thanks to all our sponsors and supporters — especially IIID and the Universidade Nova De Lisboa. Also, my congratulations and deepest thanks to our host Sandra Fisher-Martins and all at Portugu√™sClaro.
Educaloi’s conference in Montreal, Canada
A week after the Clarity conference, I spoke at Educaloi’s conference to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Educaloi is an independent, not for profit organisation providing information and education about the legal system in Quebec, Canada.

Educaloi has long promoted the benefits of plain language — especially for consumers. One of the conference aims was to bring attention to plain language — in the minds of decision-makers and writers, especially in the legal world — as something that is as relevant to business and government as it is to retail consumers. This is something that has happened to a large extent in Australia and is increasingly happening elsewhere in the world — especially in the English speaking world. It is exciting to see it spreading.
These are exciting times in the plain-language world.

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