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Plain language finally defined – but is this really the last word?

[6 Nov 2013] After several years of cogitation, the International Plain Language Working Group has come up with a single-sentence definition of a plain-language communication, the idea being to unify the many other suggestions put forward during the last 30 years. The sentence aims to cover wording, structure, purpose, usability and design (eg, layout).

The just-about final draft was announced at the Plain Language InterNational Association (PLAIN) conference held in Vancouver in October. The proposed text is:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

At Plain Language Commission, we think the definition makes a good start but a bad end, with the words ‘that information’ forming a clunky climax to the crescendo of the three-part list. It could perhaps say:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they learn.

Authors in different parts of the world are expected to retain or omit the serial or Oxford commas (after ‘structure’ and ‘find’) depending on their local style preferences.

The Working Group is made up of members from PLAIN, the Center for Plain Language, and Clarity, plus several others from around the world. To read more about how the definition was developed, click here to download the Clarity newsletter number 64. 

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