Plain English: it's the law

Plain English: it's the law

Accessibility is everything in language

Reading comprehension is a skill and not one that everyone possesses in equal measure.

As any outdated copy of the geography board game Where in the World? will tell you, literacy was far from universal as recently as a few decades ago. Now, literacy rates are topping out near 100 per cent in multiple parts of the world. But this apparent progress masks a hidden problem.

Like many things, literacy is a spectrum. Experts have identified six literacy levels, which they’ve labelled 0 to 5. Level 3 is considered the minimum competency needed for everyday functioning. So we’d expect most people to have a literacy level of 3 or higher, right?

Wrong. According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 52 per cent of adults in the United States have a literacy level of 0, 1 or 2.

They might struggle to follow recipes and other instructions; apply for jobs or unemployment benefit; write emails; pass the written portion of a driving test; understand medical charts, lease agreements and household bills, let alone vote; post on social media; decipher think pieces and academic articles; read the latest Booker Prize winner; or make sense of this sentence.

What’s going on? The reasons are too complex to properly disambiguate here, but suffice it to say that having a low literacy level does not mean someone is stupid or lazy. Everything from neurological makeup to quality of schooling to socioeconomic status and socialisation to nonnative status can impede acquisition and retention of these skills.

Moreover, learning how to read is not like learning to ride a bike. It’s more comparable to complex maths. Without practice, one’s literacy level will decline over time.

So what about lawyers and complicated legal language? It’s probably safe to assume that the average legal text requires at minimum a literacy level of 4 to comprehend.

This is in part due to a legitimate desire to prevent any potential loopholes or misinterpretation. But it’s also partially down to tradition. After all, courts use past precedent (stare decisis in legalese) to decide similar cases in the present. Traditionalism is in their blood.

Lawyers aren’t the only ones accused of hiding behind complex language. Governments deal in laws as well, and officials and politicians are no less guilty of using convoluted language in their communications.

Enter the Plain Language Act. After a debate which apparently had MPs on both sides quoting Shakespeare, Chaucer and Wordsworth, New Zealand recently passed a bill that will require officials to use plain language when communicating with the public.

It’s the first of its kind and a huge step towards addressing the symptoms, if not the causes, of subpar literacy. Will this usher in a new era of radical transparency through simplicity? That remains to be seen. But it’s certainly a great move to demystify public policy. Accessibility has (rightly) become a buzzword in other areas of life, so why not in what is arguably one of the most important?

This is a lesson not just for governments but also for anyone who communicates with the public. When writing for a general audience, we – the author of this piece included – should never take for granted that our readers will know obscure turns of phrase or be able to puzzle through convoluted syntax.

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Lark Knutsen
Lark Knutsen

Writer and editor