This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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26 September 2011

Brit Tom Albrighton, on his ABC Copywriting blog,  has kicked off a 'Plain English Patrol' - under which name he promises to find, dissect, and repair badly written signs. He laments:
Bad English is everywhere, just waiting to leap out and chafe your sensibilities. And the heartbreaking thing is that just a little thought and effort would have made the difference between total calamity and total clarity.
In this first Plain English Patrol post, he looks at three signs. Here's an example:
It’s the small print about a competition that’s promoted on the bottle.
Open to those aged 12 and under. Parent/Guardian consent is required for participation…
So let me get this straight. By definition, we’re talking to kids – if the parent or guardian is already reading, there isn’t a problem. And we’re talking to kids as young as five or six. So why, in the name of all that’s holy, are we using words like ‘consent’, ‘required’ and ‘participation’?
The Flesch-Kincaid reading level of this text is 9.0, or US ninth grade – in other words, only likely to be comprehensible to children of at least 14. Clearly, whoever wrote this didn’t spend too long thinking about the nature and concerns of their audience.
It’s puzzling because the understandable version is so obvious:
You must be 12 or younger to enter. Ask your Mum or Dad first.
OK, I’ve lost the ‘guardian’, but I’m sure kids with guardians will get the message. And with a grade level of 1.4 (clear to a six-year-old) I feel the trade-off is totally worth it.


  1. Consideration of the audience must be high on every writer's pre-writing strategy. (Yes, I'm assuming a reasonable level of reading and comprehension ability with that sentence.)
    So many other style decisions fall into place once the writer has a clear understanding of just who will read their words.
    Let's keep our writing clear, engaging and sharp.

  2. Yes - right at the top of the list! Until we know the audience, we can't possibly know what style, tone, content, layout, and language choice will work.