Plain Language and Radioactive Language

Karin Cather - Editorial Services

By Karin Cather

Editor & Ghostwriter

Category: Editing | Plain Language

Published February 23, 2015

Simple language creates trust, saves time, and prevents confusion. There’s a whole body of law devoted to the issue of ambiguity in contracts, and those contracts were drafted by lawyers. Nevertheless, some of them are so ambiguous that they give rise to expensive litigation and disrupt the relationships between the parties. Writing these contracts in plain language would prevent these issues.

The use of unclear, jargon-riddled language also affects your relationship with your colleagues. You’re a subject-matter expert. But can people outside your area of practice understand your article at the end of a busy workday? If a professional outside your specialty can immediately understand your article without looking up the acronyms or struggling with unfamiliar terms, that professional may refer clients to you. If the article is impenetrable, your reader will move on to something else.

And if you are a healthcare professional, does your brochure or website make it clear to your patients what they must do?

What Are They Selling?

Consider the following language, partially lifted from the brochure of a long-defunct company:

XYZ’s mandate to deliver energy, health, environmental and economic benefits to our citizens is founded on the principle of partnerships. XYZ is in the knowledge business for the public good: we generate knowledge, share knowledge, access knowledge, apply knowledge, turn knowledge into technology … and help others exploit that knowledge and technology for the public good.

So many words and none of them tell you what that company makes. Perhaps the brochure does that later, but who will keep reading it? The language contains a lot of details but no information, and people don’t trust language that they can’t understand. The only thing that stands out for me is the word exploit, and that word is in the same paragraph as the word environmental. Why not just make the logo a picture of a burning rainforest and finish it off?

When the writing is this fuzzy, it’s generally because there’s an uncomfortable truth at the heart of it. In general, it’s best to state that uncomfortable truth. Why? Because the company probably really does this:

XYZ works with you to prevent radioactive wastewater from spilling into your town’s aquifer. We recognize the tremendous responsibility you bear, and we have developed the very best technology to prevent disaster.

With that reality in mind, you are in a better position to draft a brochure that won’t scare the daylights out of the public but will grab the attention of your potential customers. Here’s a sample from later in the same brochure:

XYZ is the leading supplier of these devices to the safeguards market used to monitor the storage of spent fuel in storage pools. The existing design has been upgraded through several generations and a major improvement from the qualitative to a quantitative measure of the radiation that may be related to activity of the fuel has now been identified.

Pop quiz: What does this company produce? Don’t worry, everyone got it wrong, but I grade on a curve, so you still have an A. By the way, I added the boldface so you didn’t have to. You don’t know anything about the company; you only have a few dozen words that one of their employees wrote. Would you want to buy anything from XYZ?

In Case of Emergency

Speaking of fuel and disaster, here is a chunk of language that is pretty much typical of residential leases and dormitory regulations:

Reporting a Fire:

Upon the discovery of smoke and/or flame, regardless of the degree of intensity of the fire the person(s) involved shall immediately initiate the following actions:

  1. Activate the fire alarm system by pulling a manual pull station or verbally notify the building’s occupants of the fire if the alarm system is not functioning.
  2. Evacuate from the building and report to the pre-designated assembly area and await further instruction from the Building Administrator or Public Safety representative.
  3. Even if the fire alarm system has already been activated, locate the nearest telephone or use a cell phone (at a safe distance from the fire) and contact the Public Safety Department at [ten-digit number] to report the fire. When the Dispatcher answers the phone, provide them with the nature of the emergency and the exact location (building, floor and room number or area).
  4. The Fire Response Safety Protocol shall be followed based on the information received by Public Safety Personnel regarding fires on campus.

Does that language help them? Does that language help you? When are your tenants or building users going to read it? And if they read it at all, will they remember it?

It looks like an auto loan contract. If you think it helps save lives, you may have spent too much time in one of XYZ’s toxic waste pools.

Here’s what I’d recommend:

Reporting a Fire:

If you smell smoke or see fire, pull the fire alarm. Evacuate the building. Tell everyone on your way out that there’s a fire. Call 911.

If you hear a fire alarm, evacuate the building. Tell everyone you see on your way out that there’s a fire. Call 911.

The first version was probably drafted by a risk management attorney. The second version can even be prominently displayed next to your building’s fire alarms and can be understood even by someone who is panicking. Because in emergencies, some people freeze.

And while we’re on the subject of risk management, what’s a Fire Response Safety Protocol? If the part of the student handbook that deals with what to do if the student union building is on fire is as ponderous as what you’ve already seen, can you imagine what the Fire Response Safety Protocol looks like?

Why Write Like This?

Sometimes, opacity is mistaken for authoritativeness. Perhaps it is meant to create a power imbalance and put the reader in their place. Sometimes it’s meant to protect the author. Sometimes, the communication is beside the point. Communication like this creates mistrust and loses the reader.

The price for opacity in the fire emergency example could be that people die. The authors intended, presumably, to create direction in an emergency and communicate the instructions in a way that people in an emergency can absorb. But the original instructions would need to be memorized. This lack of clarity adds unnecessary language to simple concepts and creates a process when two sets of short instructions would do.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language is direct and to the point. It uses clear terms and avoids jargon. Referring to a party to a contract as “Party of the first part” creates too much mental labor for the reader. How about just saying “Doe Widget Corporation”? If you’re a doctor, why can’t you use simple language and put the correct term in parentheses? Tell the reader straight out what you mean.

In Summary

Writing that is opaque, wordy, full of jargon, and that takes more than one reading to be comprehensible is ineffective. Plain language editing, on the other hand, results in clear and precise writing that doesn’t require you to mentally inhale in the middle of a sentence. It can be lively no matter what the subject area. People may be able to read it in the middle of an emergency. Which would you prefer?

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