Research in clear language

The Plain Language Movement is supported by information makers and providers who want more people to read their content. Dense academic language meant for other academics is frustrating for others wanting to learn more. So, it is time for clear language now that more universities are producing open access articles.

“… the plain language movement is rooted in the ideal of an inclusive society… ” Language is not for those with social privilege.

An empty page in a notebook with a pencil and sharpener. Doing plain language is a process

Plain language summaries are a good start and sometimes a requirement of research funding. These summaries are often shown as four or five short bullet points before the academic abstract. And now we have a new acronym: Knowledge Mobilization (KMb). The requirement for plain language summaries has given rise to yet another area of research.

Sasha Gaylie at the University of British Columbia explains more about this in her article Clear Language Description. There is a little confusion whether plain language and clear language are the same things. Consequently, there is a move to create an international standard.

The International Plain Language Federation defines plain language as “wording, structure, and design are so clear that readers can easily find what they need”. Easy Read, Easy English or Easy Language, which is for a specific group of readers, is not the same thing. It’s good to see universal design in language as a relatively new frontier in inclusive practice.

Gaylie lists five focus areas for that offer a structure for grouping individual recommendations briefly listed here:

  • Audience: The benchmark is 8th grade reading level.
  • Structure: The most important information should appear first.
  • Design: White space and headers to break up text, and also helps screen readers.
  • Expression: Use an active voice and avoid jargon.
  • Evaluation: Peer review by a non-expert for best feedback.
A blank page of a spiral notebook and and fountain pen.

Inclusive descriptions

This is a growing area of language. Words can hurt and harm. We already see how language has changed when we look at old texts. For example the use of “man” and “he” when meaning all humans.

“A term need not be intentionally harmful to cause harm; the act of description is not neutral, and even when using the “plainest” of language, inherent bias affects output.”

A mosaic of many different faces and nationalities

Sasha Gaylie’s article concludes with a practical guide based on the five focus pointed mentioned earlier.

From the Editor: Writing in plain language is a skill-set that challenges a writer to think really carefully about what they want the reader to know. It is not about what the writer wants to say. Doing plain language is a process. Writing complex ideas in a straightforward way takes time and effort. And it also makes me think about my relationship to the topic.

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