The Mystery of Plain Language

The Mystery of Plain Language

The problem with plain language, of course, is pretty much similar to that of common sense – no one really knows how to define it. There’s always someone with a bit more common sense. There’s always someone a bit more wordy savvy capable of saying something in better, clearer English. The Consumer Protection Act’s plain language clause ironically leaves much open to interpretation, and has been the subject of speculation since it was published.


In terms of ‘plain language’ definition, the Consumer Protection Act took its cue from Section 64 of the National Credit Act of 2005[L1] :

<i>“For the purposes of this Act, a document is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the document is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal credit experience, could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the document without undue effort”</i>

The Act further elaborates on context, content, design, style, and vocabulary. And with a literacy rate of 86%, one would assume that plain language in South Africa is achievable without <i>undue effort</i>. Or is it? With English used by many as a lingua franca, and the primary language in business throughout South Africa, <i>literacy</i> is superseded by <i>capability</i>. Only 9.6% of the population use English as a first language. For the rest of South Africa it’s either a second language or a foreign language, used with varying degrees of accuracy. Also take into account the varying degrees of educational experience that persist even today.

Perhaps one of the better descriptions of plain language comes from[L2] , a US-based website dedicated to “Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public”. It states:

“Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”

The website goes on to list writing techniques that can aid plain language, including:

  • Logical organization [of information] with the reader in mind
  • “You” and other pronouns
  • Active voice
  • Short sentences
  • Common, everyday words
  • Easy-to-read design features

Common sense – there it is.

Using the above techniques in a South African context can already aid communication between businesses and their audiences tremendously. These are, in fact, the fundamentals of good copywriting.

But for many local businesses it may not be as straightforward as “You like our beans? Buy our beans.” Marketing precepts often get in the way, suggesting that every business is essentially a brand, and all brands have (or should have) a unique voice. Copy used for the local corner shop might not be sufficient for Proctor & Denoon Attorneys.

Once again a solution is offered to those endeavouring to comply: take a cue from Mad Men and test your copy. Audience definition is key here, and will likely cost many businesses quite a penny in research costs, since many of them (and I’m saying this based on personal experience) have a standing target audience description of everyone (“Oy, you with the patched tweed jacket – you like our yacht? Buy our yacht.”).

Ultimately, it seems that the best way forward for many businesses will be to invest in professional copywriting. While this may seem like a cheap product placement strategy, it’s not. The main purpose of copywriting is to communicate with audiences in an easy-to-understand language. Most copywriters, after years of experience, also know how to communicate with audiences in different markets, and niches within those markets, thus enabling clear communication without compromising voice or, indeed, the entire brand.