Plain language is a right

2013-09-26 00:00

OUR Constitution is frequently lauded as one of the world’s most progressive; so often in fact that such praise has attained the status of cliché. But one of its greatest virtues is generally overlooked: it was consciously written in a style that makes it easily understood by the average literate person.

This was part of Justice Minister Dullah Omar’s insistence that the transformation of justice and the exercise of citizen power required democratisation of the language. Only then could rights and responsibilities be fully understood.

So South Africa joined the worldwide campaign for the use of plain and intelligible language. This has a long way yet to go. Legal documents are notorious for lengthy sentences of impenetrable meaning, prompting cynics to believe that they are drawn up by lawyers to provide more work for lawyers to interpret. There can be absolutely no doubt that sometimes the authors of language confusion are intent on deception.

Plain-language writing is not just a matter of substituting jargon with more familiar words or reducing sentence length. It goes to the very heart of communication and involves understanding by drafters of the precise needs of readers: clarity driven by the priorities of citizens and consumers. There has been no lack of commentators on this issue, and in the case of Hippocrates they go back to classical times.

I had personal experience of this in my days as a university campus administrator. Many legal documents crossed my desk; many of them I struggled to comprehend.

One I remember very clearly: the lease agreement for staff accommodation at Ukulinga Farm; over 20 pages of dense convoluted legalese. Communication amounted to zero and how anyone could sign it mystified me, so I set about capturing the essential content and rewriting it in plain language. The result was a list of basic obligations and responsibilities to be exercised by tenants and the landlord. It fit onto one page.

One suspects that the original document was cut and pasted from what were imagined to be comparable circumstances. It’s the easy option, whereas writing a watertight agreement tailored to specific need in intelligible prose is hard work.

Plain language has come back to prominence in recent years following the introduction of consumer-protection legislation.

Terminology in, for instance, the financial sector, can be particularly confusing and the Consumer Protection Act (section 22) demands clear disclosure so that people can make informed choices. Citizens are entitled to clarity about their rights and obligations, whether dealing with the state or the commercial sector. It is an essential part of democracy.

In Britain, over a period of 10 years, the government rewrote and redesigned 58 000 forms deemed user-unfriendly, after a campaign that made its point in dramatic fashion by the public shredding of offending documents.

As the advocates of plain language point out, it should enable individuals to see themselves as willing participants and good citizens, not as the subject of authority.

So plain language is a civil right, but it is generally assumed to refer to prose − documents and forms, for example. However, anyone who is a regular listener to SAFM might well ask whether the same standards could be applied to the airwaves.

One of the joys of radio in the past was commentary read by seasoned journalists. I remember with fondness Luke Alfred’s regular sports column titled From the Left Field; intelligent and thought-provoking, and there were political equivalents. Nowadays, we are treated to wall-to-wall, real-time interviews that often amount to confusion, obfuscation and lack of communication.

Politicians, government officials and their spokespeople are the worst offenders. Listen hard to an interview consisting of, say, 10 questions. The listener will generally end up none the wiser about anything.

The questions are generally well thought out and to the point. But some public figures seem to believe that they have no obligation to respond in a similar spirit. Often it is clear that they either do not have a rational answer or they have no intention of communicating one. So they resort to set-piece speeches or start challenging the interviewer, and repeat the performance for every question.

The interviewer’s exasperation is palpable, although few have the skill of a John Perlman to nail down the culprit.

Ultimately, whether in prose or speech, clear communication is all about honesty in public dealings. Write and say exactly what you mean and answer the question.


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