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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28 October 2010

Obama signs Plain Writing Act of 2010

On 13 October, the US President signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to use plain writing in government documents for the public.

‘This is a triumphant moment for all those who support plain language use,’ said Dr Annetta Cheek, Chair of the Center for Plain Language, long-time advocate for plain writing. ‘The Act defines plain writing as writing that the audience can understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing.’

19 October 2010

Clarity Conference 2010 - Portugal

Here is a little blog from Anne-Marie about day two at the Clarity Conference.

Clarity 2010 – Day two

The second day of the Clarity conference continued with themes linking government, web writing, and training developments happening around the world. A recurring theme was how to show the $ benefits of using plain language.

The plenary session got a taste of some of the studies Joe Kimble’s updated book with cite when it comes out next year.

Topping off a very successful conference was the gala dinner held at a palace just out of central Lisbon. We were able to sample typical Portugese food in a stately setting with our new friends.
As night went on, plain language specialists showed what a multi-talented bunch they are with impromptu singing, guitar playing, and even a performance of a Victor Borge classic—‘Inflationary Language’, before we danced the night away!

A natural follow-up for the participants at this conference will be the next PLAIN conference, to be held in Stockholm in June 2011. Organisation is well under way, and the call for papers will be out soon.

18 October 2010

Clarity Conference 2010 - Portugal

While Anne-Marie is in Portugal, I'll be posting the blogs she sends.

Clarity 2010 - Day one

The first day of the Clarity 2010 conference has gone very well. We have seen some fascinating presentations on everything from explanations of world water footprints using information design to resources on disaster preparedness.

Other highlights were the latest report from the international plain language working group, updates on what's happening in places as diverse as Sweden, Brazil, and South Africa, and commentary on language used during the global financial crisis.

Our small New Zealand delegation is making the most of the opportunity to talk to people from around the world, sharing our experience and learning from others.

And our hosts from Portugues Claro are doing a fabulous job of providing translations for all sessions, catering with delicious food and coffee, and greeting every request with a smile.

The conference venue is the Universidade Nova de Lisboa with its award winning backdrop of Lisbon and wonderfully mild weather and you have the perfect setting for an international conference!

05 October 2010

Access all areas

One person in five has a disability. Over half of those people have more than one disability.

These figures are familiar — but did you think about the able-bodied reader who left their reading glasses at home?

A conversation with Robyn Hunt and Mike Osborne at AccEase has got us thinking about what’s involved in making information accessible, and who needs it.

AccEase works with clients who communicate with disabled customers. Their watchword is ‘All of the information to all of the people, all of the time’.

When they talk about people with disabilities, their list is longer than you may first consider. What about people who cannot hold a page or a pen because of shakes or fine motor problems? Or who have a cognitive disability caused by their medication? People often assume that blind people read Braille — but the Braille-reading population in New Zealand numbers only a few hundred.

Then there are other barriers to accessing information. Less than half of New Zealanders have their own internet connection, and those that do may be using old or non-standard equipment. Around 40% of working-age New Zealanders have difficulty reading.

Mention ‘accessibility’ and people think ‘websites’ — but accessibility is an issue for paper-based documents, and any other way information is presented. Did you know that glossy paper can create glare for a reader who has low vision? Or that grey text on white is as difficult to read on paper as it is on screen?

Accessibility is a feature of plain English. The reader may access your words on a website, in a form, or read aloud by a human or a machine. You want the reader to read the words once, understand them, and act on them.

Robyn describes disabled people as ‘the canary in the coalmine’ for accessibility. If the words and their format don’t work for disabled people, the rest of the population may struggle too.

Visit the AccEase website

Visit Robyn Hunt's blog

01 October 2010

Punctuation: I’m relaxing my rules — slightly

When I first started teaching grammar, it was to people who had English as a second language. They craved rules. They wanted me to tell them exactly when they were supposed to use a certain verb tense, and exactly how many exceptions there were to that rule and could I please list the exceptions?

So I took the ‘rule’ approach to teaching punctuation. I had my three rules for when to use commas, and specific scenarios for when you put the full stop inside the quotation mark, and when you put the full stop outside.

And then in the last few weeks, real life has come along with a bang. I’ve been out of the classroom and into the world of editing, and I’ve realised that, while the rules work most of the time, sometimes they just don’t fit. What people have done in their documents doesn’t work according to the rule book, but the punctuation works perfectly well anyway.

I’ve looked up lots of different books on punctuation, and I’m amazed at how often the authors disagree over the finer points.

So now, humbler but wiser, I’m not throwing the rule book away, but I’m more open to creative punctuation. After all, the only reason punctuation’s there is to help get the message across more clearly.