Plain language as practice

08 January 2023

I struggle sometimes when seeing callouts about the use of specialist language in public communication about social and cultural issues. Part of me feels defensive because I remember being at school and being disliked for, among other things, my use of “long words”. “Why do you talk like this, when you could say the same thing with smaller words?” I remember someone asking me, clearly very irritated. My response then was that using smaller words would take longer, because it would take a sentence or two to describe the thing that the longer word points to. I used to get called “pretentious” a lot, which I found strange because I wasn’t “pretending” anything, I was speaking using the actual words that came to mind for me. The criticism of how I spoke was a criticism of how I thought, and that felt like a very intimate thing to be called out on.

However, other people’s need for things to be expressed in accessible language is an entirely separate problem to the question of whether I should feel ashamed about the way my brain works. In many contexts, an argument AGAINST highfalutin language is an argument FOR plain language. The question does not need to be whether it is bad to use specialist terms - instead, the question is what could be gained by translating the same ideas into plain language.

Tiktok video by PNW Policy Angel:

Plain Language Writing - An Essential Part of Accessibility:

I found the video and document linked above very helpful because they gesture towards the details of how and why plain language information should be created. This takes the task of plain language communication as its own practice, similar to translating between languages or creating alternative formats for visually-impaired people. It values plain language while also giving space for specialist language, with all the benefits that come with that way of communicating in appropriate contexts.

In ‘Plain Language Writing — an essential part of accessibility,’ Andrew Pulrang states that plain language versions might be longer. Alternatively, a plain-language version may need to be broken into more parts - I imagine that this brings its own accessibility benefits, as it allows the reader to process fewer ideas at once. I can also imagine that a plain language version might be illustrated differently - I was recently reading a plain language document that presented information a sentence at a time, each sentence with its own illustration.

Next time I see someone expressing frustration about the use of specialist language, instead of feeling defensive in the face of that frustration, I'm going to think, could a plain-language version of this be created? If so, what would need to change? Surely if someone is irritated to be facing a barrier, they must be interested enough to want to access this material in the first place, and they are justifiably frustrated that the material has been composed in a way that is inaccessible to them. I want to respond to that interest, even though I recognise that it might take extra time and resources for me to do so.

I know a lot of people imagine that using big words takes more effort than using simpler words, but for me that's not the case at all. The work of unpacking even just one big word into a plain language description can be just as complex as writing a multi-paragraph essay only using specialist terminology. It often takes five paragraphs for me to explain what I mean by one word. But it's good work, because sometimes in the course of doing it I sometimes realise that I am actually not thinking clearly, and the big word was distracting me from my own point.

As someone who thinks in big words, the early sketch version of an idea is going to involve a lot of big words. I enjoy sharing work at that earlier stage sometimes, and I don't think I'm going to stop doing that. But I am going to keep an eye out for things I've done that would benefit from a plain language revision, and I suspect that the plain language version is usually going to be more polished.