Plain-language initiatives

U.S. Government acts to protect consumer rights

Bruce Braley
Congressional plain-language champion Bruce Braley.

IN 2009, Representative Bruce Braley of Iowa introduced the Plain Language in Health Insurance Act. This bill would have required the federal government and private health insurers to write all new healthcare documents in plain, easy-to-understand language.

Some provisions of this bill governing private health-care plans were eventually incorporated into the massive health-care reform bill. Called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it was signed into law by President Obama on 25 March 2010. The plain-language provision covers private health care plans in Section 1311(e)(3)(B):

USE OF PLAIN LANGUAGE.—The information required to be submitted under subparagraph (A) shall be provided in plain language. The term ‘plain language’ means language that the intended audience, including individuals with limited English proficiency, can readily understand and use because that language is concise, well- organized, and follows other best practices of plain language writing. The Secretary and the Secretary of Labor shall jointly develop and issue guidance on best practices of plain language writing.

The Wall Street reform act

President Obama and Elizabeth Warren
President Obama and Elizabeth Warren. The powers of the new agency have yet to be determined.

On 26 July, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It is the most sweeping change in financial regulation since the Great Depression. It creates the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection as part of the Federal Reserve.

On 17 September, the President appointed Elizabeth Warren as advister to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to help set up the new Bureau. Consumer advocates were elated and urged the Presidenty to make her head of the agency. They also cautioned that her effectiveness would depend on the powers given the new agency.

Warren came to Washington in 2008 to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street banks. She is a strong advocate of plain language in consumer documents.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010

On 13 October, without any fanfare, Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Representative Bruce Braley had first introduced the law in 2007. The purpose of the new act is to promote "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." The new law covers all documents that describe federal servics and benefits or information or how to apply for them.

The new law requires each federal agency to:

  1. Designate at least one senior official of each agency to oversee enforcement.
  2. Train the employees of the agency in plain writing.
  3. Set up a process for reviewing compliance.
  4. Create a plain-language section on the agency's Website.
  5. Enable citizens to review and comment on enforcement of the act.

No magic wand

We have seen many government plain-language initiatives since the 1970s, when President Nixon decreed that the Federal Register be written in "laymen's terms." Experience has shown that plain language does not happen by waving a magic wand. Instead, it requires:

  1. Strong leadership.
  2. Objective standards.
  3. Effective training.
  4. Adequate resources.

While the new laws do address issues of general compliance, the details have to be worked out. Managers resist implementing new requirements if they are not provided adequate fundiing and other resources. And training all agency employees in writing plain language is a very big order. It is really tough to teach people how to use good English, and, even more so, how to write for a class of readers with whom they are not familiar.

While plain language is easy to define, it is difficult to enforce without some objective standards. There has been some precedent in doing this. In the 1970s, several states enacted plain-language requirements for insurance policies, requiring a Flesch Reading Ease readability score of 40 or 50 (about the 12th grade). This was a big improvement. As enforced by the state insurance commissioners, it helped millions of consumers.

Requiring a readability score that will match the reading level of the audience goes a long way in improving the effectiveness of documents. Writers report that a such a standard makes them better writers. It helps them focus more on the reader.

Creditcard.com study

The unreadability of credit-card agreements

Reading credit card agreement
In the fine print: statements only a banker would love.

A new study on credit-card agreements shows they are written on average at a 12th grade reading level. Since the average adult in the U.S. reads at the 9th-grade level, these agreements are difficult to read for four out of five adults.

The study was conducted by CreditCards.com, an online credit-card marketing and consumer-information service. They hired a team of researchers who downloaded and analyzed every word nearly all of the credit card agreements offered in America, more than 1,200 contracts. This became possible in May 2010, when the Federal Reserve publicly posted the agreements online as required by the by the Credit CARD Act of 2009. The research team rated the statements using a computerized version of the FOG Index, a widely used readability formula.

They found the wordiest agreement was written for MasterCard and Visa cards issued by Fifth Third Bancorp, containing 30,799 words written at the 14.5-grade reading level. They pointed out that the U.S. Constitution has only 4,018 words and Shakespeare's shortest play contains 17,858 words.

The easiest agreements were written at the 7th-grade level, with most of them written for credit unions.

Financial advisers recommend that cardholders read and understand their agreements. Consumer advocates, however, maintain that card issuers deliberately use language they won't understand.

For full details of the report, go to: http://tinyurl.com/3xsdzjy

Free Google online books on plain language

Kwang Ki-Chaou. 1881.
A Dictionary of English Phrases:
Arthur Reade. 1882.
How to Write English:
James Bryant. 1892.
Plain English: A Practical Guide to the English Language:
Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, eds. 1980.
The State of the Language:
Ian Montagnes. 1991.
Editing and Publishing, A Training Manual:
Stephanie Karsten and Dale Kasa. 1991.
Dissemination by Design: Reaching the Elderly with Information:
Diane Publishing Company. 1996
Communicating and Interacting with People with Disabilities:
Securities Exchange Commission. 1998.
A Plain English Handbook:
Organization for Econoomic Co-operation and Development. 2003.
Promise and Problems of E-Democracy:
Nancy Berkman et al. 2004.
Health and Literacy Outcomes:
Leslie Aronovitz. 2006.
Communications on Prescription Drug Benefits
U.S. Congress. 2007.
Subcommitte Hearings on Plain Language in Paperwork:
World Health Organization. 2007,
Effective Communications in Public Health Emergencies:
Elaine Arkin. 2009.
Making Health Communications Programs Work:
Janice Redish et al. 2010.
Use of Language in Ballot Instructions:

Plain language in the news

U.S. Labor Dept. issues plain-language 401(k) rules: http://tinyurl.com/2aa6yp3

The Federal Reserve, translated: http://tinyurl.com/2est4hw

Banks bungle on their own fine print: http://tinyurl.com/25ub2gn

The quality of chronic-pain Websites: http://tinyurl.com/2bfruhj

Tips for successful email newsletters: http://tinyurl.com/2a6u38u

How to write for the Web: http://tinyurl.com/233tu4z

Low literacy's effect on health: http://tinyurl.com/25z5kqd

Court rules on readability of juvenile-probation rules: http://tinyurl.com/22swzjk

Silly company names: http://tinyurl.com/24un6l3

Writing for social media: http://tinyurl.com/2dbh5sl

The cost of bad business communications: http://tinyurl.com/2er5yfp

How to write a bad-news business letter: http://tinyurl.com/29okmsg