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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31 January 2011

New Zealand law requires financial advisers to communicate clearly

Moving on from our previous post about US financial advisers and plain English, New Zealand advisers are already required to make themselves clear.

Code Standard 6 came into force on 1 December 2010, and says: ‘An Authorised Financial Adviser must behave professionally in all dealings with a client, and communicate clearly, concisely, and effectively.’

Catriona Grover, a partner at Kensington Swan law firm, presented on the new Code at the 11th Annual Super Funds Summit in March 2010. She said that the Capital Market Development Taskforce ‘recommends simplifying and standardising disclosure documentation’. This will help investors know exactly what they are investing in. So, expect disclosure documents to, in Catriona’s words:
  • ‘feature prescribed wording in concise plain English
  • be comprised of two parts, a very short prescribed overview and a longer "further information" document’.

27 January 2011

Plain language legislation in the USA requires financial advisers to write clearly

Plain language legislation in the United States is starting to have an effect. Financial advisers are getting nervous about their 31 March deadline, when they must give their clients investment philosophies, fee schedules, and ‘conflict of interest’ documents that are written in plain English.

Hopefully, some of the new documents will be good enough for a ClearMark award (the US equivalent of the WriteMark Plain English Awards in New Zealand). Our own Lynda Harris will be one of the international judges for ClearMark this year.

21 January 2011

Do ‘Kiwis’ really say what they mean?

On Monday, I read (and laughed with) this article from the Washington Post.

On Tuesday, a friend commented that she loved being a Kiwi (a New Zealander) because ‘we say what we mean—we don’t hide behind silly words’.

By Friday, and after a week back at work, I’m still pondering her comment. Eight years as a Plain English Specialist in New Zealand, I have to suggest that ‘saying what we mean’ hasn’t always been my experience—especially in the world of business communication.

For example ‘management has become cognisant of the necessity of eliminating vegetation from the periphery of the facility’ surely means ‘we need to weed our gardens’.

We’d love to know what you think? Or to read examples of writing you’ve seen recently.

16 January 2011

The unfortunate result of a new Google feature

On Sunday mornings, from the comfort of my bed, I often find myself +iPhone catching up on blogs or twitter posts. The Siegel + Gale post about the Google feature that rates the reading level of web pages dispelled any early morning grogginess! I was at my computer in a flash to check it out.

I'm sure Google had the best of intentions when it created this extra feature mainly to help students, teachers, and researchers I believe but it certainly came with a sting in the tail. The feature rates sites 'basic', intermediate', and 'advanced'. Unfortunately its release immediately prompted headlines such as How Smart or Dumb is Your Site? In other words, highly readable sites using very clear language are 'dumb', while those that use jargon and complex structures are 'smart'.

Blogger Sarah Negugogor put it beautifully when she said, 'if Google had used different words for the reading levels, it might have kept people from rushing to make value judgments. If the levels were named “Clear,” “Intermediate,” and “Convoluted,” do you think people would be bragging about how convoluted their site’s language was?'

Read the full post

10 January 2011

06 January 2011

Giving clear instructions to jurors

Being a juror can be a somewhat daunting experience. But clear instructions can make all the difference.

In Texas, proposed changes to the Rules of Civil Procedure include jury instructions rewritten in plain language. Lawyers, judges, and court officials know that jurors don't always understand the instructions they're given or what their responsibilities are as members of a jury. The new instructions, if approved, will remove legalese and clarify points that people find confusing.

Read more about the new juror instructions in Texas

And check out the recently revised information for New Zealand jurors on the Ministry of Justice website. (By the way, Write worked on part of the Ministry's Access to Justice project.)

Read the information for jurors in New Zealand

Please use the comment box to tell us about instructions you've read recently -- those that were great to use, and those that caused you trouble.

05 January 2011

Fun with grammar

Just before Christmas, we received this enquiry through our website:
kia ora
to my shame I don't regularly look at your website but someone sent me a link recently and as I scanned through it my eye landed on the piece about grammar that said english doesn't have rules it has patterns the article said you could split an infinitive start a sentence with a conjunction and finish a sentence with a preposition it then continued with a number of rules that have to be followed when using commas and apostrophes and so on which made me wonder which rules we have to follow and which ones we dont ive done a lot of writing and editing and following and writing style guides and i think you have to have rules that must be followed except when there is a good reason for breaking them take the split infinitive for example it can be the best way of expressing an idea to put an adverb between the to and the verb but if you just take the rule away people start putting whole adverbial phrases in there and it really does become hard to read i think there should be rules about capitals at the beginning of sentences and full stops at the end if we just do away with those rules english becomes hard to read the greeks used to write in capital letters with no puctuation and because it was hard to read people invented punctuation etc to make it easier its a good job i followed spelling rules or you would be totally confused happy christmas
We thought it was too good not to share, so we asked Peter Russell, the sender, if he minded us blogging his letter - and our response. Thanks, Peter, you're a good sport.

Here's the response:
Dear Peter
When you are trying to make something – whether it is a boat, a coat, or a sentence – it is important to follow the right pattern for the job. If you ignore large parts of the pattern, or don’t follow any pattern at all, you’ll end up with a mess. People with heaps of experience, talent, and skill can afford to take liberties with the pattern, because they understand their tools, their materials, and the impact of both on the effect they’re trying to achieve.

Nonetheless, the pattern is not a rule – in the commonly used sense of the term ‘rule’. If you put a keel on the roof of your cabin instead of under the hull, it won’t work – and all the people at the yacht club will have a good laugh at your expense, but you have not broken a rule. If you make one sleeve long and the other short, it might look odd, but you have not broken a rule. And if you insist on inventing your own spelling (or typing an email with no punctuation in order to tease your friendly local grammarians), your communication may be flawed, but the grammar police will not arrest you.

With that small change in terminology – rule to pattern – we agree with all that you’ve written. It is important to follow the patterns.
Peter may be please to know that we edited the article on the website that prompted his email, adding the line: "Below, we discuss some of the patterns you should follow if you don't want to confuse people." Thanks again, Peter.