Plain Language is More Inclusive

If knowledge is indeed power, we have a responsibility to provide as much of it as possible to others by communicating it plainly.

By Michelle Martin
Published March 06, 2015

Once, as part of my job, I supported a person with a developmental disability in the hospital. His illness meant that he was allowed nothing by mouth, but was instead on an IV to provide the necessary calories.

He was worried, and not happy about being unable to eat. He asked the doctor treating him what was in the tube in his arm. The first words out of the doctor's mouth were "viscous liquid" and "nutrition."

I could see he was getting upset, so I interrupted the doctor to say something like, "The tube in your arm is giving food to your body so that, even though you can't eat, you will still be okay."

When we think about the language of inclusion, we usually mean that we must write and speak without using slurs that harm the personal dignity of others by targeting their race, gender, ethnicity, social status, sexual orientation, or any disabilities they may have. In recent years, this concern has widened to include words that offend individuals with developmental disabilities.

Sponsored by the Special Olympics, the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign targets the word "retarded." It seeks to eliminate it from everyday speech, to have people be as appalled to hear someone say "retarded" as they would be if a racial slur had been used. This is important, and it seems to be helping. That battle, unfortunately, is not yet entirely won.

There is another side to inclusive language, though. Language needs to be fully accessible to its intended audience, an aspect commonly referred to as plain language. Plain language guidelines are followed when, for example, government information pamphlets are produced. It is not meant to be condescending. Rather, its goals are simplicity and clarity.

We should know that these are characteristics of all good writing and speaking. My sales representative father used to remind me, as I prepared presentations for school, "Tell them what you're gonna tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them."

That old student standby, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, reminds us, "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words..."

This can be difficult. The vocabulary we use is a way of jockeying for position in society by indicating our knowledge, level of education, or professional prestige.

But think how inclusion would spread if we prided ourselves instead on our ability to communicate clearly with everyone. Think what it would mean for encounters with neighbourhood associations, elected officials, media, customer service desks, law enforcement, or medical professionals.

Maybe a sentence we use doesn't contain a slur or an insult, but it can still intimidate and prevent people from asking for assistance or information, because we've made them feel too unintelligent to do so, or confused them so much that they don't know what question to ask in order to understand what we have said.

If knowledge is indeed power, we have a responsibility to provide as much of it as possible to others by communicating it plainly.

I have quoted Jean Vanier on this issue before, so no need to do so again, but let's recall with him that we can move from exclusion to inclusion not only by avoiding insults, but also by remembering that truly human encounters include the heart as well as the head.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By David Harvey (anonymous) | Posted March 06, 2015 at 10:47:30

There's a movement in law as well to put aside traditionally convoluted legal language in favour of plain language. A recent example can be found in a decision of Justice Shaun Nakatsuru in R. v Armitage

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By simple guy (anonymous) | Posted March 06, 2015 at 11:08:32

Who is "Justice Shaun Nakatsuru in R. v Armitage" ( That is one heck of a long name!) , and why does he get to decide?

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 06, 2015 at 11:57:56

Actually, at least in politics, so-called simple plain language is now used to obscure meaning and confuse the public:’t-be-beguiled-orwell-using-plain-and-clear-language-not-always-moral-virtue

"The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”."

"There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion."

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted March 06, 2015 at 14:54:40

Law is complex. Arcane words are used because the meanings have been litigated and through trial have universal acceptance. In short, their use is actually efficient and beneficial to society.

Using so called simple language can actually open up a Pandora's box of misunderstanding.

While general obscurity appears to preserve the lawyer's job, in fact life is extremely complex, and letting them communicate with words in a math like way is ultimately beneficial.

Mathematical nomenclature is a good comparison. Using universal symbols reduces misunderstanding. Unfortunately at the same time, it limits the communication to those who can understand the nomenclature.

(This says nothing about the warning in the Hitchhikers Guide that the Babel fish was one of most dangerous things in the universe - or - that true understanding in communication ulitmnately leads to destruction.)

Comment edited by CharlesBall on 2015-03-06 14:55:34

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2015 at 22:33:37

Relatedly, I've found great use in the Simple English version of Wikipedia when researching stuff with my son for school.

The Simple English wikipedia is far less complete than the main wikipedia, so it looks like there's plenty of room for contributions if anybody's passionate about the subject.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2015 at 23:13:54

Thanks for that resource - didn't know about that one.

Another helpful one I like to use when preparing plain language materials in developmental services:

It's a dictionary/thesaurus that gives definitions at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted March 14, 2015 at 12:13:31

I despise the 'r' word too. People are judged by the words they use. If you choose the use words like this you are telling me all I need to know about you.

It reminds me of a scene in the documentary about Conan O'Brien. O'Brien is standing outside an arena he's about to play, asking a couple of youngsters if they have tickets. One of the lads explains that he tried to get a ticket from a scalper but he got, 'Jewed out of it'. Ouch. O'Brien is half Jewish. Cue the smack down O'Brien cringes then tells the guy he'll give him a ticket if he promises never to use that word again. The moral? Using crass words never helps your cause and just makes you look stupid.

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