Plain and clear: Resources on Plain English

Vasyl Pawlowsky
July 28,2005

It was not by chance that I have decided to write on this topic, which I believe is important both in the industry in which I work, and for business communication in general. Working in a Kyiv-based law irm, we have to deal with documentation in Ukrainian and Russian, and also in English, as our clients are not only domestic but also international firms.

On a regular basis many of our employees come to me (one of only two native speakers in our firm) seeking advice on translation, grammar and syntax. One day I was approached to help with the translation of a clause in a contract, which read as follows:

“Except as otherwise provided in this Agreement, no remedy hereunder or with respect hereto which may be available to any Party hereto is intended to be exclusive of any other remedy available to such Party and every such remedy shall be cumulative and in addition to every other remedy available to such Party. If circumstances, facts or events are covered by several clauses of this Agreement and its Annexes, which are not the same or do not foresee the same consequences therefore, this shall not be construed as an ambiguity, but rather as independent claims, rights or obligations under each Clause, provided, however, that under no circumstances shall this result in losses or damages being recovered fully or partially twice”.

I asked a couple of my firm’s lawyers: “Is it completely clear what the clause means?”. I could never get a quick response, many took a great deal of time trying to understand the English, let alone translate it into Ukrainian.

It was not long before I realized there must be an easier and clearer way of writing whatever this clause was supposed to mean. I started searching how to clarify it and this led me to all kinds of resources on the use of plain language.

Plain and simple

One of the first online resources I came across was the Plain Language Association International’s website <http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/>. Not only does this site provide its visitors with a better understanding of why things should be written using plain language, but one can easily find plenty of articles by advocates about using plain language in general and, more specifically, on plain legal writing.

The first stop of the tour in this site is the article entitled ‘An Introduction to Plain Language’ by Cheryl Stevens <http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/stephens/intro.html>. It quickly gives one a clear understanding of what plain language is, but by taking a step back up the path of the URL <http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/stephens/>, there are three other sections all equally useful: Building Plain Language from the Ground Up, Other Articles, and Design Issues.

Besides the introduction to what plain language is all about, the site provides a fair amount of comic relief on its sample page <http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/Samples/>. With one of my favourites of a rewrite into plain English being the following piece about an electronic toll system:

“Before:

Make sure that the account holder’s name on the account is the same
as the name of the customer to whose account the transaction should
be attributed.

After:

Make sure that this account is for the right customer”.

After reading much of the material directly on the site, I decided to follow some of the suggested sites in order to see if I could find a way to write the aforementioned paragraph in a much clearer way in order that my translator could render it into understandable Ukrainian.

Handbooks and the heavy hitters

Upon visiting the site it became fairly clear who the heavy hitters are in advocating the use of plain language; many of them are either involved in education, the government, are lawyers or judges. In fact, many governments have made it policy to provide materials written in plain language. Some of the following handbooks are freely available and are both informative and useful guidelines for writing in plain language:

* A Plain English Handbook – How to create clear SEC disclosure
documents <http://www.sec.gov/pdf/handbook.pdf>
* Plain Language: A Handbook for Writers in the U.S. Federal
Government <http://www.lauchmangroup.com/PDFfiles/PLHandbook.PDF>
* How to write clearly from the European Commission’s Translation
Service fight the FOG campaign [Note: the link is to an updated document, the original could not be found at the URL listed in my original article.]
<http://europa.eu.int/comm/translation/en/ftfog/booklet/fog.pdf>
* Ten free guides prepared by the Plain English Campaign in the U.K.
<http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/guides.html>

While these handbooks are a great place to start, articles on the topic are equally informative and thought-provoking. One of the individuals who can convince anyone that plain language is the way all documents should be written, is Professor Joseph Kimble. Many of his works are available at alt;http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/kimble/> and I have used many of his works convincing management at our firm to provide a course on plain legal English for our lawyers. His works often appear in the The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing <http://www.scribes.org/scribes-journal-legal-writing>, a publication of The American Association of Writers of Legal Subjects
<http://www.scribes.org>.

However, Professor Kimble is not the only one whose articles are great guidelines: Judge Mark Painter not only contributes to Scribes but many of his articles appeared in The Ohio Lawyer’s Weekly in a column entitled “The Legal Writer” and are available in full text in the publications section of his website
<http://www.judgepainter.org/publications.htm>. Together with Professor Kimble, Judge Painter and countless others have taken on a world where writing remained archaic and, for the most part, incomprehensible. The idea of writing is to communicate an idea, instruction, or explanation to an intended audience clearly. While this is not intended to be a complete listing of all the possible  resources, on plain English, these, together with the people involved in this movement, have helped me understand the issue at hand and dozens of sites are available at <http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/Resources/websites.html>.

Clearing things up

After reading many of the articles in the resources provided above, I was still not much further ahead than when I had started on my quest. I thought I would head back to the web and continue my search further. It was then that I came across Clarity, “a worldwide group of lawyers and interested lay people.” Its aim is “the use of good, clear language by the legal profession”. Their website at <http://www.adler.demon.co.uk/clarity> provided yet another great resource, but still no answer.

I have always advocated the view that the Internet is much more than the resources made available via the WWW, it’s really about the people who are connected. So I went back to where I had started from at the Plain Language Association’s website, and hit the Feedback link. I figured that within this network of people I was bound to find someone who could help me with a re-write of the alphabet soup I was given by one of our translators.

Well, I was right; within a relatively short time I received an e-mail from someone at from Legal Secretaries International <http://www.legalsecretaries.org/>, with a re-write of what I had started with. As it turned out, the “mess” that I had was something that looked like a “validity” clause to the person who had written to me and a standard one could be worded as follows:

“Validity. If any provision of this Agreement is declared or determined by any court to be illegal or invalid, the validity of the remaining parts, terms, or provisions will not be affected and any part, term, or provision so found to be illegal or invalid will be deemed separate from and not a part of this Agreement”.

Now that was a whole lot easier to understand. I sent it to my translator whose reply was, “Now I can translate that! It’s plain and comprehensible!”.

While the answer was not easily found on the resources above, they, together with the people who contribute and advocate the use of plain language, were of great assistance in tackling the problem at hand. Besides, the question I had posed turned up a little surprise: someone with the same family name as mine, located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, wrote to me to see if we were somehow related. We still haven’t figured it out if there is a family connection, but we do know a lot of people in common.

Source: FreePint