Plain Language
at Work Newsletter

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  8 August 2008—Number 37  
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Smart Language: Readers,  Readability, and the Grading of Text

Unlocking Language: The Classic Readability Studies

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The Legal Writer

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Clarity for Lawyers by Mark Adler

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Plain-Language Classic

Mrs. Stowe's Mighty Sword


Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896): language for the ages.

HARRIET Beecher Stowe is best known as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1851. It was a runaway best seller, sold millions of copies world-wide, and was translated into 60 different languages.

While early critics dismissed the book as trivial and sentimental, her talents as a writer and a mother moved a nation to action. It is said that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 he said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!"

Today, Uncle Tom's Cabin is recognized as the most important book of the 19th century.

In her 51 years as a writer, Stowe wrote and published 30 books and countless articles. In addition to novels, poetry and essays, she wrote non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects including homemaking, raising of children, and religion. She also found time to teach school and raise seven children. Her dedication to writing remains an inspiration to writers everywhere.

Making Slavery Personal

Stowe put a human face on slavery by writing about the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse suffered by individuals and families. It was while living in Cincinatti, across the river from Kentucky, a slave state, that she first encountered the horrors of slavery. When Harriet and her husband, Calvin, learned that their servant was a runaway slave, they drove her to a nearby station of the underground railroad for escape into Canada.

A friend later told Harriet of seeing a young woman running across the frozen river carrying a baby. Harriet, who had lost her own son Charles to cholera when he was only 18 months old, was deeply moved.

In chapter seven of Uncle Tom's Cabin, she recreates that scene and conveys the terror felt by Eliza, a young slave, fleeing across the frozen river with her child:

If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning—if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o'clock till morning to make good your escape—how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom, the little sleepy head on your shoulder—the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck?

A Gift for Dialog

It was not only by drawing on her own experience and concern about slavery that Stowe reached literary greatness. She had an exceptional education as a writer and came from a family in which women were expected to excel.

Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in an easy, conversational style written at the 7th-grade level. She was a brilliant writer of dialog and one of the earliest masters of American realism before it became popular. Her most stinging critiques are often embedded in conversations that jump out and bite you as in this sample:

"Some folks don't believe there is pious niggers Shelby," said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, "but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans—'t was as good as a meetin, now, really, to hear that critter pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap of a man that was 'bliged to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it's the genuine article, and no mistake."

Stowe also had a powerful grasp of literary character. Three of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin have become bywords in American culture—little Eva, Uncle Tom, and Simon Legree. She also showed the important role that fiction can play in addressing the moral and political issues of the day.

Today, there are hundreds of books and other studies about Harriet Beecher Stowe and her special place in American literature. Along with Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, she knew how to use the bare bones of language and make it speak to the ages..

For more on Harriet Beecher Stowe and her work:

http://www.harrietbeecherstowe.org/life


Consumer health information

Getting Patients to Ask Questions


Helen Osborne: asking questions can save lives.

ONE way of helping patients to understand medical procedures is to encourage them to ask questions. This is the message of health-literacy expert Helen Osborne in "Questions Are the Answer" to Helping Patients Understand their Health, published in the Boston Globe.

Getting patients to ask questions helps them take more responsibility for their own health care. It also helps to confirm what they know and don't know about medical procedures.

Osborne refers readers to the Questions Are the Answer program of the Agency for Healthcare and Quality. The agency reports that medical errors cause tens of thousands of deaths a year. Many of these deaths could be prevented if patients were more involved in their health care. The Website lists the types of questions that patients can be taught to ask:

  1. What is this test for?
  2. How many times have you done this?
  3. When will I get the results?
  4. Why do I need this surgery?
  5. Are there alternatives to this surgery?
  6. What are the possible complications?
  7. Which hospital is best for my needs?
  8. How do you spell the name of that drug?
  9. Are there any side effects?
  10. Will this medicine interact with any I am taking?

Asking questions helps patients make better decisions, receive a higher level of care, reduce medical mistakes, and feel better about their health care.

Helen Osborne is the author of Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message. She also has a Website full of information on health literacy: http://www.healthliteracy.com


Informed consent: it helps to ask questions.

Informed consent

Getting patients to ask questions can also benefit informed consent. The law requires physicians to inform patients of the risks, benefits, and alternative procedures.

Extensive research for the last twenty years has shown that consent forms for treatment and research are written at a level beyond the skills of most patients.

While many Institutional Rreview Boards have set readability standards for consent forms, in very few institutions are those standards met. Consent forms most often are 20 pages long and full of legal and medical jargon that few people have the patience or ability to read.

As a result, most patients sign forms without fully understanding them. People cannot consent to what they do not understand. The existence of a signature on a form does not always mean consent was given. Judges also consider whether critical information was given to the patient in a form the patient can understand.

No magic wand

Getting consumers to ask questions is a good way to get institutions to create more readable forms. Nothing would produce results faster than to crowd waiting rooms with patients demanding clarification of consent forms.

But that won't be enough. Most medical institutions lack the skills they need to produce medical information and consent forms at the required levels of readability. Managers often assume that writing simply is easy, but nothing is more difficult. They cannot wave a magic wand and expect personnel to suddenly start writing plain language. It takes method, training, and lots of practice.

Medical writers are often excellent readers and find even difficult texts easy to read. They have no idea how difficult their writing is for others to read. It takes special skill to write for members of a reading class not one's own. As Jacques Barzun wrote, "Simple English is no person's native tongue."


Plain Language in the News

New guide for using readability formulas:
http://www.prunderground.com/00240/new-guide-shows-how-to-use-readability-formulas-to-write-for-your-target-audience/

Keep your briefs brief:
http://www.fcw.com/print/22_20/policy/153050-1.html

Plain English progress in New Zealand:
http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/4616020a6160.html

New Zealand report calls for clear, simple safety information:
http://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/13621/report-calls-clear-simple-osh-info

Thumbs down for jargon in human resources:
http://www.management-issues.com/2008/8/6/research/thumbs-down-for-hr-jargon.asp

The Plain English Speaking Award:
http://ararat.yourguide.com.au/news/local/news/general/grace-a-
winner/1173662.aspx

Eighth-grade level tricky to achieve:
http://www.coloradoan.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/
20080808/COLUMNISTS58/808080325/1046/business

Plain English not spoken here:
http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2008/jun/24/0624-edit2/

College-Aid Awards hard to understand:
http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story/colleges-need-course-
explaining-financial/story.aspx?guid=%7B5F422BD4
-39AE-4085-A93B-E6B90077AEC6%7D&dist=hppr

New book on business jargon:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121677155348975497.html?
mod=googlenews_wsj

Unreadability of online consumer contracts:
http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/business/story.html?
id=b527bec7-cfa0-47cb-b841-dfecb7556552&p=2

Adult literacy in the U.S.:
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08220/902548-151.stm

Teen illiteracy in Europe:
http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/jul2008/gb20080711_
958247.htm?chan=globalbiz_europe+index+page_top+stories


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© 2007 William H. DuBay

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