Plain language and the historical rain shadow

“I have a theory about the Internet,” said John Maxwell.

“Oh?” I took a sip of my coffee and sat back. “Go on…”

“See, everything before, say, 1970 is old enough to be interesting history, so people have posted that information online. And everything after 1995 is already on the Internet. But there’s this rain shadow of about two and half decades that there isn’t all that much information about. I think there’s a huge opportunity for people to fill in that history.”

John was referring to his research project about Coach House Books (see my summary of an Alcuin Society talk of his on the subject here), but his rain shadow applies just as well to the modern plain language movement, which got its legs in the 1970s, when First National City Bank (now Citibank) revamped its mortgage documents and governments began to recognize the need for plain language communications. The Wikipedia page about plain language offers some history, but most of it is U.S. focused, and it’s far from exhaustive.

Plain Language Association INternational (PLAIN) co-founder and tireless plain language advocate Cheryl Stephens asked me to put together a display table of the organization’s history to celebrate PLAIN’s twentieth anniversary at last October’s PLAIN 2013 conference. Drawing from three boxes of archives, including copies of PLAIN’s old newsletter, Rapport, I made a poster showing some of the major international plain language milestones of the past two decades.

Of course, there’s only so much I could fit on a poster. The archives are replete with important, fascinating historical tidbits that deserve to be documented somewhere. But where?

The need for a plain language repository

At PLAIN 2013, what became clear to me was that the plain language community could really use a repository for:

  • Clear communication research: Is active voice easier to understand than passive? Is it better to use serif or sans serif body type? I’d love to be able to visit one site to find the latest evidence supporting plain language and clear communication principles. Not only would this research inform my own work, but it would support my efforts to persuade prospective clients and decision makers about the merits of plain language. The Plain Language Advocates group on LinkedIn is fertile ground for sharing links and discussing new research, but the links to the original articles aren’t centrally archived in a useful way.
  • Case studies: Having a handy set of before-and-after examples, as well as documentation of a plain language campaign’s impacts (particularly on efficiency and the bottom line), would be enormously useful for explaining what we do and why.
  • Plain language history: Our past—seeing our gains, our losses—lights the way forward. Acknowledging the contributions of the pioneers who have dedicated countless hours to this cause is an important reminder of what we need to do to keep going.

A wiki for clear communication

I’ve sung the praises of wikis in the past: their ease of editing makes them democratic and participatory. So, I’ve set up the Clear Communication Wiki on Wikia, and I encourage everyone from the plain language community to contribute to it. Over the next several months (or, more likely, years) I plan to populate the history section with what I gleaned from my historical project for PLAIN 2013, including what I couldn’t fit onto the poster. Anyone else with relevant historical sources is welcome to fill in the details as well.

I didn’t mean to be unilateral about establishing this wiki—mostly I needed a neutral place to post the Plain Language: Clear and Simple guides I rebuilt, and I figured the wiki could serve many purposes. If there’s already an active international hub for plain language information, I’d be happy to migrate my data there.

I can see the archive of research links eventually creating the need for a full-fledged searchable database of the articles themselves, but for now, I think a wiki is a good first step.


Many of the modern plain language movement’s most vocal advocates are either gone or are retiring. The community lost Robert Eagleson in 2013, and Annetta Cheek retired from the Center for Plain Language earlier this year. I don’t know if others are feeling a sense of urgency, but I am. Let’s talk to these pioneers about their experiences, their triumphs and setbacks, and get this history down while we can.

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