Completion of jargon: will New Zealand’s plain language costs finally make bureaucrats talk like typical individuals?

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By By Andreea S Calude * as well as Sam Campbell * of The Conversation

The Conversation Portrait of a young female with a furrowed brow sitting at a table reading documents.

The Level Language Costs currently before Parliament says that easy to understand information from federal government organisations is a conventional autonomous right. Picture: Jacob Ammentorp Lund Which sentence is easier to understand?”He was communicated to his place of residence in an intoxicated condition.

“Or,”He was carried house drunk.” The majority of people select the latter, for obvious factors. This century-old example is a beneficial illustration of how” plain language” can be used to interact more plainly, from daily interactions right through to government documents.

The new Plain Language Bill now before Parliament intends to make this more than just an ideal. Understandable info from federal government organisations, it argues, is a fundamental democratic right.

The push for simplicity

Plain language movements originated in the 1970s in a number of nations, including the UK, United States as well as Canada. And there’s some indication the very first reference of plain language dates back as far as the works of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s.

Nevertheless old, these motions strove for clear, simple and accessible language in main files. This is not simply a “nice-to-have”. Sometimes it can save your life – pandemic guidelines from the Ministry of Health, for instance.

And there is likewise an element of linguistic equality to it: minority, migrant and marginalised neighborhoods have more trouble comprehending complex and jargon-laden documents, which tip the scales even further against them.

Cropped shot of a female student learning English.

Level language is a justice problem, enabling non-native English speakers to much better comprehend official files. Photo: 123RF

What appears language?

There is no single definition of plain language, however both the UK and US commonly utilize the one proposed by the International Plain Language Working Group:

An interaction remains in plain language if its phrasing, structure, and style are so clear that the intended audience can quickly find what they need, comprehend what they discover, and utilize that information.

In practice, it is simpler to acknowledge a text written in plain language than one that is not. But it also depends on who is reading it. What might appear language for some, will not be for others.

That stated, basic tenets of plain language texts in English include:

  • utilizing concise sentences (15-20 words max)
  • positive (not unfavorable) stipulations
  • active, not passive voice (“if you break the law” not “if the law is broken”)
  • verbs rather than complex nouns (“recognize” not “indentification”)
  • common words instead of jargon.

Although the principles of plain language are not new, mandating them through New Zealand legislation is.

The Plain Language Costs

Aotearoa New Zealand’s Plain Language Costs aims to:

improve the efficiency and responsibility of public service firms and Crown representatives, and to enhance the accessibility of specific files that they make available to the general public, by offering those documents to utilize language that is (a) proper to the desired audience; and (b) clear, concise, and well organised.

The expense prior to parliament does not explicitly specify plain language beyond this description. We’ll need to wait for the information.

If the expense is passed into law, the general public Service Commissioner will need to produce product to assist firms comply with plain language requirements.

Only after seeing this guidance material will we understand what effect reforms might have on federal government documents. So, MPs will essentially be voting without knowing what the expense will really require firms to do in practice.

The devil in the information

There are some other essential things to keep in mind about what the expense does and does not do.

It aims to improve availability of documents for people with disabilities. It does not impact the use of te reo Māori in federal federal government agency files, nor does it propose to oblige companies to equate documents into languages aside from English.

Possibly most significantly, the bill does not consist of any enforcement systems, although firms and representatives will be needed to report their development.

The costs is procedural in nature: it creates no enforceable rights or commitments. Members of the public will not have the ability to seek any form of remedy if they continue to find files hard to comprehend.

International experience

Considered That New Zealand’s costs is closely designed on the Plain Writing Act 2010 in the United States, it is useful to consider the law’s impact there.

After it was passed, plain language supporters in the US were initially unimpressed by its impact. But the Center for Plain Language, a non-governmental organisation that publishes report cards on writing quality in federal government agency files, kept in mind substantial enhancements between 2013 and 2021.

In 2013, half of the 20 companies reviewed either stopped working or required enhancement to meet plain writing requirements, while in 2021 every firm passed.

Will it work?

Will this costs work to make federal government files even more accessible for New Zealanders? The short answer is, we don’t know yet. But the United States experience recommends some progress is most likely.

One thing the New Zealand costs is currently doing, however, is increasing awareness of the need for clear communication. Some MPs have voiced issue about the cost of the reforms, the absence of enforceability, and even that the new law will increase bureaucracy.

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