The benefits of Plain Language in the United States

Annetta L Cheek, PhD

Dr. Cheek earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. She spent 25 years in the US Federal government, mostly writing and implementing regulations. She was the Chair of the board of the Center for Plain Language from its founding in 2003 until June 2014. She was instrumental in getting the US Congress to pass the Plain Writing Act of 2010. She is on the Board of Clarity International. Currently she is working to develop plain language standards under ISO and is the Chair of the Standards Committee of the International Plain Language Federation.

Annetta L Cheek, PhD

The modern plain language movement in the United States started in the Federal Government in the early 1990s. The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) was one of the first to adopt the new way of writing. The Small Business Administration followed quickly, and then other agencies began joining the effort and it spread to the private sector. Eventually the US Congress passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to write material intended for the public in plain language. While we certainly do not see 100% compliance yet, there has been a slow but steady improvement in government writing over the past 20 years.

Plain language saves time and money. Here are just two examples:*

  1. The VBA tracked results from rewriting one form letter. They asked the counselors who answer phone calls about their letters how many calls they got. In one year, they sent out 750 copies of the original version of the letter and got 1128 calls asking about it – more than one call for each letter! The next year they sent out 710 copies of the new, plain language version, and got 192 phone calls. This was a significant cost savings to VBA and much better service to the veterans who understood the letter without having to ask about it. And this was just one letter in one VBA office – the VBA sends out millions of letters a year.
  2. Federal Express, a private package-delivery company, rewrote its operations manual into plain language. With the old manual, its employees typically searched the manual for information for 5 minutes each time they had a question, and found the correct answer only 53% of the time. With the new plain language manual, average search time dropped to 3.6 minutes and they found the correct answer 80% of the time. This saved time for employees and money for Federal Express, and made the company work more effectively.

Readers prefer and are more likely to read plain language and understand it correctly. Here are two examples of that:

  1. A law school professor sent a survey to almost 1500 lawyers and attorneys. He asked them to tell him which of two paragraphs they preferred. The one paragraph was in traditional legal language; the other paragraph was in plain legal language. Over 80% of the people who responded preferred the plain language version.
  2. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates radio, television, and other mass communication media, rewrote its instructions for Citizen Band (CB) radios. Readers of the old version took an average of 2.97 minutes to answer 20 questions, and got an average of 10.66 correct. Readers of the new version took an average of 1.62 minutes to answer the 20 questions and got an average of 16.85 correct. Additionally, the readers scored the old document’s difficulty as 4.59 out of 5 and the plain language version as 1.88 out of 5, with 5 meaning “very difficult.”

These and many other examples have demonstrated that plain language versions of documents save organizations and customers time and money, are viewed more positively by readers, and get better results.

*Specific examples taken from Jos Kimble’s 1996-7 article in the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, entitled Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.