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.

To find out more about Write, go to or join us on Facebook at

28 September 2012

A conversation about health literacy with diabetes nurse Sera Tapu-Ta'ala

I had a conversation about health literacy with Sera Tapu-Ta’ala, Diabetes Nurse Specialist at Kenepuru Hospital, Capital & Coast District Health Board.

Language is what connects families and communities. Dialogues and conversations in the respective Pacific languages is the ideal way in which Pacific people share tasks and support each other to manage a family member’s diabetes, or an individual themselves. Language is one key element in health literacy. It is critical to acknowledge that health literacy is a resource of a family and a community.

Sera’s work is predominantly within the Porirua area. She says that her visiting territory in Porirua is like a village. It has its own structure. Sera’s work in Porirua is shaped by the stories that tie its people to each other.

Stories are the Pacific way to share tasks and experiences. The families Sera visits are a resource—for information, teaching and learning, encouraging adherence and achieving goals. Family members are eyes and ears for each other. When Sera cares for someone with diabetes, she is developing the health literacy of the family.

The patients guide the learning
There’s a lot to learn when you have a long-term condition like diabetes. When Sera is working one-to-one with her patients, she asks open-ended questions, and lets her patients guide the learning. Not being ‘the teacher’ and giving them space to tell their stories lets patients do the learning.

When they talk about how impaired and unwell they feel, Sera interprets the tasks of managing diabetes, so that they develop the skills and knowledge to feel better. She writes down goals and targets, and uses diagrams to explain highs and lows. She uses the “teach back” strategy to seek clarity and to ensure an equal understanding and interpretation of a particular situation has been attained. She chooses language carefully. As a fluent Samoan speaker, she always uses the formal Samoan language for the older people, or those who prefer to speak in the Samoan language. People respond when the language you use is appropriate and simplified.

Spreading the word
Pacific churches play an integral part in the lives of most NZ-based Pacific people. Radio programs on the respective Pacific radios also have an important part. Sera now has a monthly slot on the Samoan radio in Wellington and hopes to extend time to other Pacific Radios. She knows that church is where the people are, and the radio is the means to reach them - so that’s where to take the messages.

26 September 2012

A welcome surprise

I recently received new policy documents for my car insurance. It was great to see this note attached.

image - note from the AA - improving the definition of your cover

We have simplified our policy wording and made it easier for you to find the information you need. We have also explained our benefits and some of the insurance terms we use in more detail so that your car insurance policy is easier to understand.
Good work AA!

Read the policy document (PDF download, 1.2MB)

21 September 2012

Clarity... and the words you can't say out loud

There are loads of very precise words around, but we can’t always use them. Clarity is the goal. It’s no use looking like an expert with your technical terminology if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying.

See the post from Johnson that got us thinking about this.

There’s a word for it — but you can’t use it

19 September 2012

When it comes to creative writing, know the rules of writing before you break them

Do the rules of good writing apply to creative writing? Surely creative writing is the complete opposite of information writing, with its focus on structure and clarity? 

In some ways, that’s true. When it comes to creativity, anything goes. The only real criterion of successful creative writing is whether anyone wants to read it. Does it work for the reader? If you can attract readers to your page of ungrammatical blank verse, good for you.

It’s the same in any art form. Who hasn’t looked at a famous piece of modern art, with a minimal painted squiggle or primitive-looking blobs of colour, and thought ‘my 3-year-old could draw that’?

Be careful. A good artist or writer really knows their craft. They know how to reduce complex ideas into something that seems deceptively simple. Simplicity in writing is hard to do well, because it often distils many ideas down to their essence. To do that, you have to understand the rules of writing. Once you know the rules, you can be free to break them—but it should be a conscious choice.

I came upon a useful explanation of how and why rules apply to creative writing in an interview Script Magazine did with Joseph McBride, a well known screenwriter in the United States. McBride teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State University, and has written successfully for film and television.

Here’s what he said:

‘Even though, in an important sense, creative writing doesn’t have ‘rules,’ writing without any knowledge of the rules of good English prose, the rules of grammar and sentence structure, is a guarantee of muddled, messy writing. There’s a frequent misconception among students that it’s not ‘creative’ to learn the rules of good writing. Those students’ writing is often merely free-form indulgence. Discipline is essential to any genuinely creative writing. You have to know what you are doing and where you are going. Otherwise it’s just scattershot, and the story falls apart on the page. If you can’t write grammatically correct prose, your writing will lack clarity, and the reader will become exasperated in trying to follow or figure out what you might be trying to say. My screenwriter friend Sam Hamm says the first job of a screenwriter is ‘to keep the reader’s eye moving down the page.’

Well said, Joseph. Any good writing, creative or not, has to meet the needs of its reader, or they simply won’t read it. And then all that creativity goes to waste.

11 September 2012

Trespassing — grammar with a legal implication

Our Margaret Austin noted a crime against language on the front page our newspaper the other day. Its story ‘Dirty Tactics in Grocery War’ contains the following misuse of the verb to trespass:

‘He trespassed two people yesterday’. 

The grammar stuff

‘Trespass’ is an intransitive verb meaning ‘to commit a trespass’— and an intransitive verb cannot have an object.

You cannot trespass someone from your supermarket. You can issue a trespass notice against them entering your supermarket — and if they set foot inside it, you’d say they were trespassing your property. But if you want them to stay outside, you cannot ‘trespass them’.

Legal implications

A similar crime was committed by journalists who said that Stuart Wilson had been trespassed from the Whanganui’s public spaces. You can’t trespass anyone from anything either.

Margaret notes that, if Wilson’s lawyer decided to take a grammatical stand in the debate about where his client is and is not allowed in Whanganui, Wilson could win freedom of movement in the city’s parks and domains.

07 September 2012

Bouquets to the good; brickbats to the bad

Have you entered the 2012 WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards? Enter for your own organisation, or put some other organisation under the spotlight. Let us see the best, and the worst.

Entries close on 21 September, so don't miss out!

The annual Awards honour the organisations and people who are trying to make the world a better place by banishing jargon and gobbledygook.With consumers increasingly demanding clear communication, the Awards celebrate the efforts of government and business organisations that have made a commitment to plain English.

Nominate another organisation in one of the People’s Choice categories. The Best Plain English Communication category recognises a document or website that exemplifies plain English. And because a bit of adverse publicity can inspire change too, the Worst ‘Brainstrain’ Award invites you to ‘dob in’ your most confusing, jargon-filled document or website.

This year sees the addition of the Best Plain English Turnaround Award where previous nominees for the "Brainstrain’ Award can redeem themselves.

The award categories are:
  • Plain English Champion Best Organisation Best Individual or Team
  • Best Plain English Document Public Sector Private Sector
  • Best Plain English Website Public Sector Private Sector
  • Best Plain English Sentence Transformation
  • Best Plain English Technical Communicator
  • Best Plain English Investor Document
  • People's Choice Best Plain English Communication Worst 'Brainstrain' Communication
  • Best Plain English Turnaround
Entries will be assessed by an international panel of plain English experts and advocates.

The finalists in each of the award categories will also be recognised with an Award of Distinction. Winners will be announced at an Awards ceremony in Wellington on 29 November.

For more information or to enter online, visit