What is plain language? (Part Two: Audience outcomes)

multiple perspectives fanIn Part One of my attempt to explain how I understand plain language, I focused on the elements of a text that must be managed to create a plain language document. Anyone who has known me for long, however, could have predicted that I would talk about the rhetorical context of a high quality document in Part Two.  Here come my two cents on understanding plain language as an outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text.

Allow me to give a little background first. Following Aristotle, I like to use the rhetorical triangle.

  • rhetorical triangle preziThe corner with text refers to the elements of content, organization, style, and mechanics that appear in writing and make up the document itself.
  • The corner with purpose refers to the goal or intent of the writer of the document
  • The corner with audience refers to the recipients of the document.

As I remind my students constantly, all three aspects of the rhetorical context must be considered in order to make judgments about communication quality. In other words, a document is successful only when it fulfills the writer’s purpose for the document’s readers. There’s no such thing as a successful document considered in isolation. Researchers interested in workplace document quality have recognized the limitations of text-focused definitions since at least 1989, when Karen Schriver published Evaluating text quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods. (If you want to continue exploring research in this area, start with Dutch researchers like Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, or Michael Steehouder.)

I used the revised email announcement shown below in Part One on defining plain language. And I claimed it was a move toward plain language compared with the original version.

However, the text is likely to fail for any of the following readers:

  • One who is not fluent in English.
  • One with visual impairment.
  • One who doesn’t care about pension plans.

Not surprisingly then, one way to define plain language is to focus on the effect or outcome a text has on its readers — rather than on the text itself.  As PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) states, “Plain language is language understood by its audience.” And some folks prefer not to use the term “plain language” at all because of it implies the focus is on the language or text rather than on the reader.

So what are the desired outcomes of a plain language document on its audience? I suppose the most often mentioned is comprehension. It follows that a common prescription from those interested in better workplace writing is to address an audience as if they have less education than the writer or less expertise in the document topic.  Sometimes this is explained by referring to reading levels. In a 2004 report, William DuBay recommended writing to an general audience at the 7th grade level and lowering this to the 5th grade level when communicating about health, medicine, or safety.

Similarly, in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffett disclosed

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

By the way, that handbook is a terrific, concise guide for implementing plain language within the workplace.

While comprehension may be the king of audience outcomes, it is not the only desirable one. First off, the purpose of some documents requires more than understanding. This is true of any document that includes instructions. In my video tutorial based on Chapter 2: Analyzing Audience of Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I explain that the rhetorical context determines whether writers must address audience ability to understand a message or audience willingness to accept a message — or both. Audience outcomes related to willingness include:

  • usability: whether the audience can use the document to perform a task accurately
  • efficiency: whether the audience can get content quickly and easily
  • credibility: whether the audience believes the content of the document
  • selection: whether the audience selects the document to read

The bottom line: I understand plain language as the outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text, and the outcome includes but is not limited to comprehension. You may have noticed that I have said next to nothing about the third point of the rhetorical triangle. That means you can expect Part Three to address document writers and their purposes for writing.

One thought on “What is plain language? (Part Two: Audience outcomes)

  1. Pingback: language is sacred, so beware of using it in vain/in vanity « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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