Isabelle Boucher—Plain language is a service to members (PLAIN 2013)

Isabelle Boucher, education officer with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), made a strong case at her PLAIN 2013 plenary session for using plain language in union documentation and union activities. “Unions aren’t just about collective agreements,” she said. “They’re about social justice.” Plain language allows members to understand their rights and

  • is inclusive—not all union members have the same education and literacy skills
  • is democratic—union members who understand what’s going on are more likely to vote
  • encourages participation—members are more likely to speak up and take on roles within the union if they feel like part of the process
  • creates safe and healthy workplaces—workers can follow safety procedures only if they understand them.

Boucher outlined the work of CUPE’s literacy working group—which  develops programs and gives feedback on literacy tools—since it was created in 2000. In 2001–2002, the literacy program offered clear language training for CUPE staff across Canada.

At its general meetings in 2005 and 2007, CUPE accepted both traditional resolutions

Be it resolved that…

as well as plain language resolutions

CUPE National will…

It announced that in 2009 it would accept only the plain language version. The literacy program knew it was on the right track when, in 2007, virtually all of the resolutions submitted used the plain wording.

In 2011, CUPE rewrote its constitution in plain language, and in 2013, it began revising its model bylaws.

More information about CUPE’s clear language initiatives can be found here.

Sarah Stacy-Baynes and Anne-Marie Chisnall—User testing: health booklets that work for people (PLAIN 2013)

Sarah Stacy-Baynes is the national information manager at the Cancer Society of New Zealand, and she teamed up with plain language specialist Anne-Marie Chisnall of Write Limited to work on twenty booklets for cancer patients and their families, covering topics from types of cancer and types of treatments to living well with cancer and managing symptoms and side effects. These booklets offer clear, evidence-based information to a general audience, and to ensure that they remain accurate, relevant, and useful, Stacy-Baynes and her team put each of them through a review process once every four to five years. Oncologists, nurses, and other health practitioners are consulted to ensure the content is up to date, and the team actively solicits user feedback. Not only does each booklet contain a feedback form at the back, which asks such questions as “Did you find this booklet helpful?”, “Did you find this booklet easy to understand?”, and “Did you have any questions not answered in the booklet?”, but it also undergoes rigorous user testing before publication or republication.

For these booklets Stacy-Baynes and Chisnall performed think-aloud testing, a method in which test subjects receive a document they’ve never seen before and talk about it as they go through it. Each testing session includes a tester, user, and note taker, and it may be recorded (video or audio). The tester uses a script to work with the participants, and they make sure the users are informed about confidentiality and other ethical issues.

The tester and user go through a warm-up exercise first, on an unrelated item such as a menu. Once testing begins, the tester can reflect or repeat what the user says but can’t directly ask the user any questions. However, the tester can coach the user to make sure he or she has thought about the visuals, for example. A video of a sample testing session can be found here.

To recruit testers, Stacy-Baynes and her team asked for volunteers at the cancer society and through Cancer Connect, a peer support group for cancer patients and their families. As a result, their pool of testers was a representative sample of their target audience. They also made sure to recruit Māori participants: each booklet is bilingual—in English and Te Reo Māori—a particularly important feature because, as Stacy-Baynes noted, of all ethnicities of women, Māori women have the highest incidence of lung cancer. The team found that testing five participants for each booklet gave them plenty of useful feedback.

They discovered through their testing that users

  • preferred that the cover image not be of a person—they and their families didn’t want to see pictures of sick people when the booklet was out on their coffee table (the booklets now feature photos of plants)
  • wanted to see pictures of the treatment facilities
  • wanted to see pictures of Māori
  • preferred simplified diagrams rather than detailed medical illustrations.

Stacy-Baynes did encounter problems during the project—for example, some clinicians reviewing the material were sometimes determined to include some content regardless of whether the readers wanted it. Keeping team members motivated and interested through the long process of testing and redrafting was also challenging, but the team gained a lot of information from user testing that they wouldn’t otherwise have found.

Greg Moriarty and Justine Cooper—Persuading clients that plain language works (PLAIN 2013)

Those of us who work with plain language have no doubts about its value, but how do we convince clients that creating plain language communications is worth the investment?

We tend to default to telling potential clients about the consequences of implementing plain language—for example, that they’ll get fewer calls from confused customers or that they’ll increase compliance. These types of arguments can be quite persuasive, but Greg Moriarty and Justine Cooper from the Plain English Foundation in Australia reminded us about other types of proof that we can add to our arsenal.

Example arguments

When putting together proposals, use case studies—preferably examples from comparable organizations. (Joe Kimble’s Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please is a good source of case studies.) Seeing concrete numbers of money and time saved can help potential clients recognize the value of plain language.

Authority arguments

Government commitments to clear communication, such as the Plain Writing Act in the U.S. or Health Canada’s Plain Language Labelling Initiative, offer authoritative reasons to adopt plain language and are hard for clients to argue with. When writing proposals, establish your own authority, supporting your arguments with research or precedent. (Karen Schriver has compiled an impressive body of research related to various facets of information design.) Finally, don’t underestimate an appeal to principle: that plain language is ethical and leads to more transparency and accountability can be a strong motivator for clients to sign on.


Moriarty and Cooper recommend using all three types of arguments whenever you pitch plain language to a prospective client. Your primary arguments should be based on consequences: outlining the benefits of plain language, showing cause and effect and appealing to the power of possibility, is one of the most powerful ways to make your case. Support these with examples, followed by authority arguments. Consider the context and tailor your arguments to the client; the more specific you can be, the better.

Peter Levesque—What is the role of plain language in knowledge mobilization? (PLAIN 2013)

How do we measure the value of research?

Productivity in academia is still largely measured using the “publish or perish” model: the longer your list of publications, the more quickly you rise through the ranks in the ivory towers.

But what happens to the research after it’s out there? In an ideal world, industry, government, and community groups put it to use, and other researchers build on it to make more discoveries. “If we put billions of dollars into research, shouldn’t we get billions of dollars’ worth of value?” asked Peter Levesque, director of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization. “We couldn’t answer that question,” he told us, “because we didn’t know what we were getting.”

Part of the disconnect comes from the data explosion of the information age. For example, in 1945, fewer than five hundred articles were published in geology—it was possible for a geologist to know everything in his or her field. Today, thousands of geology articles are published each year, and there’s no way a researcher can keep on top of all of the research. Levesque gave another example: a family doctor would have to read seven research articles a day, every day of the year, to keep up with the latest discoveries. Physicians don’t know the latest research simply because they can’t.

Disseminating research via the traditional passive push of journals and conferences isn’t effectively getting the knowledge into the hands of people who can use it. The growing complexity and interdisciplinarity of research is also demanding a shift in thinking. This recognition—that knowing isn’t the same thing as doing—is one of the foundations of knowledge mobilization, which advocates not only a push of knowledge but an active pull and exchange, creating linkages between communities and encouraging joint production. Knowledge mobilization, admits Levesque, is a term wrapped up in jargon: there are over ninety terms used to describe essentially the same concept, including knowledge translation and knowledge transfer, but they all boil down to “making what we know ready to be put into service and action to create new value and benefits.” Knowledge mobilization is still a system under construction, said Levesque, but it is a promise of improvement. By getting the latest evidence into the hands of those who develop our policies, programs, and procedures, we can improve—and in some cases save—lives.

So where does plain language come in? Well, if the evidence we’re using is incomprehensible, it’s effectively useless. Solutions in complex systems require input from several sources of knowledge, and specialized language creates barriers to interdisciplinary communication. Because academics aren’t used to communicating in plain language, they need plain language practitioners to translate the knowledge for them or to consult them on knowledge mobilization projects.

A practical example of knowledge mobilization in action is ResearchImpact, where universities from across Canada have posted over four hundred plain language summaries of research. Another example is the Cochrane Collaboration, the world’s largest organization that makes current medical research, including systematic reviews and meta-analyses, available to all government, industry, community, and academic stakeholders. The Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Community of Practice aims to connect the practitioners of knowledge transfer from across the country.

Levesque advocates continuing the conversation between the plain language and knowledge mobilization communities to strengthen the links between the groups. One opportunity to do so is the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum, set for June 9, 2014, in Saskatoon.

Greg Adams and Matthew Kaul—When plain language isn’t enough: Plain language and Global English at a global healthcare company (PLAIN 2013)

As editors at Cook Medical, an international medical device company, Greg Adams and Matthew Kaul have worked on content destined for translation into over twenty languages. (Kaul recently left to launch his own writing and editing business.) To create content that can be easily translated, they apply principles of Global English, an evidence-based system of writing techniques based on linguistic research. Global English arose out of the need to translate software documentation into many languages and was designed to facilitate both human and machine translation.

Global English can support plain language efforts because it ensures clarity. A document deemed “plain” may have short sentences and use familiar words, but looking at it through the eyes of a translator can expose imprecise statements. Global English proponent John Kohl says, “the quality of the source text, not the skill or competence of the translator, is typically the biggest factor that affects translation quality,” and because translation quality is a reflection of the quality of your product or service in a lot of cultures, we should be putting more emphasis on creating high-quality source texts. Adams and Kohl showed how the following Global English principles can help:

Make sure your sentences are semantically complete

Plain language advocates suggest using short sentences, but shortness should not be an end in itself. Don’t omit syntactic cues such as articles. For example,

Block open port on catheter fitting.

might mean

Block [the] open port on [the] catheter fitting.


Block open [the port] on [a] catheter fitting.

These two interpretations have opposite meanings.

Avoid ambiguous punctuation

For example, in this sentence:

Advance the guide catheter/sheath.

should the user advance the catheter and sheath simultaneously? Should the user advance either the catheter or the sheath? Are the catheter and sheath the same thing?

Dashes can also lead to ambiguity: are parenthetical constructions set off by dashes definitions, interjections, or clarifications?

Avoid -ing words

Words that end in -ing can function as many different parts of speech and can therefore lead to ambiguity. The example that Adams and Kaul gave the following example:

Get comfortable hearing protectors and get comfortable using them.

“Hearing” is an adjective, whereas “using” is a verb.

(This sentence is particularly insidious because it sets up a false parallelism: “get comfortable” is used in two different ways.)

Be consistent with your terminology

Avoid using the same word in multiple parts of speech. Otherwise, as we saw with the “get comfortable” example above, you might confuse the translator or reader. Also, use unambiguous words like “when” instead of “once” and “although” instead of “while.”

Avoid broad-reference and ambiguous pronouns

Some languages don’t have a pronoun that can stand for an entire phrase in the way some English writers use “which” and “that.” In this example

Our new monitor has virtually no background noise. That should substantially reduce the number of false positives.

“that” refers to the absence of noise, an antecedent that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the previous sentence. The translator would have to infer what the pronoun refers to and try to find a way to express the vague concept in the target language.

Make sure any pronouns you use have clear antecedents. Be wary of the following words when used as pronouns, because they can often be imprecise:

  • all
  • another
  • any
  • each
  • either
  • few
  • following
  • former
  • latter
  • many
  • neither
  • none
  • one
  • other
  • the rest
  • same
  • several
  • some
  • such
  • that
  • them
  • these
  • those


To learn more about Global English, visit Adams and Kaul’s blog, Global English for Everyone. They also suggest these resources:

  • Microsoft Style Guide, Fourth Edition.
  • John Kohl, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market.
  • Sun Technical Publications, Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry.

Tammy Vigue—The power of “no”: How one simple word can transform your work and your life (PLAIN 2013)

“Success has less to do with what we can get ourselves to do and more to do with keeping ourselves from doing what we shouldn’t.”
—Kenneth Cole

Tammy Vigue is a business and life coach who, until seven years ago, “was completely incapable of saying no.” As an executive in the financial industry, she found herself so overwhelmed that she eventually had to see a doctor, complaining that she had trouble concentrating and couldn’t sleep.

“You need to take a stress leave,” the doctor said.

“I can’t,” she responded. “I’m too busy.”

This situation is one that a lot of us can relate to, and several factors compel us to say yes to opportunities even though they might not be in our best interest. We worry that if we say no that we’ll create conflict, that the job won’t be done as well or at all without us, or that we won’t get any more offers. We have superhero syndrome, and we believe we can take it all on, but “when we can’t say no,” said Vigue, “our bodies will do it for us.” She pointed to Gabor Maté’s international bestseller When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, which shows the links between stress and diseases such as multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, and osteoporosis. Saying no, said Vigue, is a critical skill—one that takes practice. If we don’t, we face burnout, and our work could end up suffering. When we overachieve, others around us don’t do as much, which makes us resentful and angry. The first step to quelling the compulsion to say yes to everything is to recognize the inner “no.”

Identify your values

Your core values define who you are. As yourself, “When do I feel really alive?” Conversely, ask “What drives me crazy?” Underlying the answers to both questions are your values.

Identify your top five values, which can become your compass when deciding whether to take on an opportunity. Does it align with your values? If not, say no.

Identify your priorities

Ask yourself where you’re dissatisfied, and you’ll figure out where things are out of balance in your life. Set three goals for your year (if you have more than that,  nothing is a priority), and ask yourself whether the opportunity helps you achieve those goals.

Listen to your body

For overachievers, being presented with an opportunity triggers a stress response that we’ll do almost anything to get rid of—such as agreeing to something we don’t actually want to do. Learn to manage that response with the ABCs:

  • A: awareness—recognize that the stress response is happening
  • B: breathing—breathe deeply from the diaphragm, which helps trigger a relaxation response
  • C: choice—consciously decide what your response should be (and it may be a yes); give yourself some space away from your knee-jerk answer. “Get comfortable with silence,” added one of the attendees. “That awkward silence is not your job to fill.”


When you’re presented with an opportunity, try this decision model:

  • Is it aligned with my values?
  • Is it aligned with my priorities?
  • Do I have the time, energy, and resources?

If the answer to all three is yes, then your response can be yes. If the answer to any one of them is no, you might want to consider declining the opportunity.

Further ask yourself, “By saying yes to this, what am I saying no to?” Also ask yourself, “By saying no to this, what am I saying yes to?”

Peter Levesque of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization said that he explicitly breaks down the year into available days: 365 days minus weekends, statutory holidays, and 10 sick days, leaving 240 days in the year. He then further breaks that down into months, then weeks, to get a realistic sense of how much time he has available—a literal time budget.

How do you say no? Just do it. “There’s nothing plainer than ‘no.'” said Vigue. No need for explanations, qualifications, or apologies. People will respect you when you say no and mean it. You could also buy yourself some time: tell them you’ll think about it and get back to them. Another strategy is the “no sandwich”: begin and end by acknowledging the positive aspects of the opportunity, but firmly say no in the middle.

If you’re a team leader, be cognizant that your team members may also have their own values and priorities, not to mention budgets for time, energy, and resources. Set group goals and let everyone know how they are accountable to those goals. If you’re taking on too much as a leader, ask yourself if it’s an issue of control. Figure out what you can automate, delegate, or delete.

Saying no is going to feel very uncomfortable at first, said Vigue. But once you get some practice, it will help you regain some balance in your life.

Karine Nicolay—IC Clear update (PLAIN 2013)

I posted about IC Clear earlier, when Katherine McManus spoke at the EAC-BC meeting about the clear communication certificate program. Project coordinator Karine Nicolay gave PLAIN 2013 an update:

IC Clear is supported by the European Commission’s Clear Writing Campaign and fills a gap in education and training. Stockholm University, one of the program’s associate partners, has had a language consultancy program (broader than just plain language) for thirty years, but it is only in Swedish. IC Clear has been able to draw on SU’s expertise to develop its program.

Demand for clear communication professions will grow, said Nicolay, because in many countries the illiteracy rate is high and government recognition of people’s right to understand means there will be more forthcoming legislation requiring clear communication.

Neil James—What’s in a name? The future for plain language in a converging communications profession (PLAIN 2013)

What’s in a name?

Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation in Australia, asked us this question and did a bit of crystal-ball gazing at his plenary session at PLAIN 2013.

Plain language practitioners go by many titles—editor, technical communicator, business writer, and information designer, among others. Historically, we specialized in different types of documents—the plain language professionals worked on government and legal documents, the technical writers on engineering and technical documents, editors on books and magazines, etc.—and as a result, we found ourselves in institutional silos. For example, members of the Society for Technical Communication don’t often get a chance to exchange ideas with members of the International Institute for Information Design, and the Usability Professionals Association rarely talks to the International Association of Business Communicators. This fragmentation has hurt us, said James: “By being fragmented, we have allowed the organizations that we work for to downplay our importance. And what we do is damn important.”

Can we unite? Our differences are small, lying in the types of documents we work on and the extent of our intervention; we are on a spectrum of communication, not in silos. James offered this quote from Ginny Redish:

We really are all about the user experience. My definition of usability is identical to my definition of Plain Language, my definition of reader-focused writing, my definition of document design … We’re here to make the product work for people.

Plain language, as a profession, is pretty young, and it has evolved rapidly over the past few decades, expanding its focus from clear language to document structure and design and, more recently, to user testing. Because of communication convergence—the tendency for different communication fields over time to apply a common range of methods—it makes sense for us to consider converging as well. We face pressure from various fronts:

  • Technology: For example, desktop publishing has allowed us to collapse the roles of writer, editor, typesetter, designer, and proofreader into one
  • Information age: “Most of what’s on the Internet,” said James, “let’s face it, is crap.” Users will need us to mediate that vast ocean of information to get what they need.
  • State sanction: The U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010 is an example, and many other governments have recognized the need for clear communication with citizens.
  • Self-interest: By banding together, we can share resources, raise our profile, and maybe even raise our income.

What lies ahead for us? James proposes this plan:

  • Step 1: Start a dialogue—within each field and between fields.
  • Step 2: Do some research to nail down what we each do and what skills we have.
  • Step 3: Put the pieces together and consider federation or mergers.
  • Step 4: Engage stakeholders, working with academics to unify research and theory, working with industry to map out the benefits of what we do, and working with government for legislative support.
  • Step 5: Pick a name.

James predicts that we will eventually settle on “clear communication,” which captures the breadth of our work more comprehensively than any term that refers specifically to language or design. By uniting under a common name, we’ll be better able to push for formal standards and professional recognition.

Joe Kimble—Wild and crazy tales from a decade of drafting U.S. Federal Court Rules (PLAIN 2013)

Joe Kimble, a professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and the editor-in-chief of the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, is a stalwart of the plain legal language movement. His book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please is an invaluable reference for any plain language practitioner.

Starting in 1999, he led a decade-long project to redraft the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. At the PLAIN 2013 opening reception, Kimble shared some stories from that experience.

We all know that legalese is cumbersome to read, but its much more serious problem is that it leads to ambiguity. “Legalese is not precise,” said Kimble. “It’s pseudo-precise. It only seems precise.” Using before-and-after examples from the U.S. Federal Court Rules, Kimble showed how complex legal language results in

  • semantic ambiguity—when a word or phrase has more than one meaning
  • syntactic ambiguity—when the structure of the sentence gives rise to more than one meaning
  • contextual ambiguity—when inconsistencies or internal contradictions raise questions about which alternative should prevail

Ambiguity, Kimble was careful to point out, isn’t the same thing as vagueness, which presents uncertainty at the very margins of applying a term. Vagueness is unavoidable in legal drafting; the goal is to arrive at the right degree of vagueness.

Semantic ambiguity

A convenient example of semantic ambiguity in legalese is “shall”—does it mean “must,” “may,” “will,” or “should”? Kimble worked to eliminate all five hundred instances of “shall” from the Federal Court Rules and succeeded, until one “rose from the grave,” as he put it. Deciding the meaning of “shall” is a substantive call, and in Rule 56 of the Civil Rules, the “shall” had been changed to “should” during the restyling. Later, a debate flared up over whether it should have been changed to “must.” Rather than deciding the issue, the advisory committee resurrected the “shall,” while acknowledging in their report that it is “inherently ambiguous.”

Syntactic ambiguity

At the heart of many syntactically ambiguous sentences is the lack of a clear antecedent for a modifier or a pronoun. The committees working on the Court Rules often raised the concern that Kimble’s changes might alter the meaning, to which Kimble once responded, “It’s odd to worry about changing meaning when nobody seems to know what the meaning is.” In several of those cases, the committees decided to “keep it fuzzy” because the original language didn’t indicate which interpretation was the right one; that decision would be left to the courts.

Contextual ambiguity

Contextual ambiguity is particularly troublesome: are inconsistencies deliberate, or are they the result of sloppy drafting? Kimble’s examples show that “Most lawyers, no matter how skilled and experienced, are not good drafters.”


Of course, beyond untangling ambiguity, Kimble also worked on cutting wordiness. Why write, “the court may, in its discretion” when “may” implies “in its discretion”? For comparison, whereas the old Civil Rules had 45,500 words, the new rules have 39,280 (14% less). The new rules have 45 fewer cross-references and have more than twice as many headings as the old rules. The difference in the readability of the original and plain language versions is stark. An example (from the Evidence Rules):


Evidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature the witness’ credibility is impaired or enhanced.


Evidence of a witness’s religious beliefs or opinions is not admissible to attack or support the witness’s credibility.

The process that worked well for Kimble and his team was to have a plain language expert write the first draft; that version persisted unless it created a substantive change. This approach was more effective and efficient than having a plain language expert edit a document after the fact.