The Pixelated paradox of plain language: from the forties to the noughties and beyond

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Seven decades of language, plain and fancy. Communication has split into hundreds of languages, devices, regulations, channels and modes. But plain language principles hold it all together.

Seven decades of language, plain and fancy. Communication has split into hundreds of languages, devices, regulations, channels and modes. But plain language principles hold it all together.

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  • Peter Rabbit CC wiipedia.Bible CC www.kingjamesbibleonline.org . Cursive handwriting: www.penwablog.com
  • Old Canterbury University © friiskiwi, pxleyes.com Caesar Bellum Gallicum: openlibrary.org
  • Photo ica.org
  • Typewriter ehow.com
  • Photo of Lightning CC Alberto-Jas-e, flickr.com
  • Globe: wikipedia
  • HTML image © abcomputered.com
  • CSS image: © thecybertramp.com PHP image © arisroyo.com WCAG 2.0 stamp © greenbeast.com Everyday things © unknown Intranet © quintagroup.com
  • Images © visualparadox.com and andrew.cmu.edu
  • Pixelated fireworks © Caughtinthefire.com

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  • 1. The pixelated paradox of plain languageFrom the 40s to the noughties and beyond Wellington Plain Language SIG, TCANZRachel McAlpineContented.com
  • 2. Our agendaSeven decades of language, plain and fancy.Plain language: as old as Aristotle, as new as WCAG 2.0.Its not sexy, but it is inextricable from usability (sexy)and accessibility (scary).
  • 3. Plain language 1940s After WWII, some people pondered the problems of gobbledegook.
  • 4. My language in the 1940s Ecclesiastic father. Literary mother. Handwriting on paper. Talkative sisters.
  • 5. What is plain language? Wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find and understand the information they need.1. Put the reader’s needs first.2. Design for the reader.3. Organise information for the reader.4. Use short sentences (about 21 words maximum)5. Use familiar words.
  • 6. Plain language in the 1950s Rudolf Flesch began a long career in plain English. Books, research, readability.
  • 7. My language in the 1950s Studying French, English and Latin literature at Christchurch Girls High and Canterbury University. Handwritten notes on second- hand books.
  • 8. Plain language in the 1960s Sweden 1967: government hires its first language expert to edit legislation. UK: Melinkoff promotes legal plain language.
  • 9. My language in the 1960s In Geneva using French and global English. Touch-typing fiction on my Hermes Baby. Talking with my children. 
  • 10. Plain language in the 1970s1977 New York Plain English Law1976 Australia NRMA’s carinsurance policy
  • 11. My language in the 1970sPhoto © Marti Friedlander International Women’s Year, 1975. War on male-dominated patriarchal language, literature and life. Fierce feminist poetry!
  • 12. Plain language in the 1980s1982—1985: Britishgovernment overhauls allits forms, saving millionsof pounds.Cost of errors in forms ofDepartment of Health andSocial Security alone hadbeen £685 million peryear. (Coopers & Lybrand). Sweden Linguistic Division: 5 lawyers, 5 linguists. All new legislation is reviewed for clarity.
  • 13. My language in the 1980s Double lightning strike: the personal computer and word-processing software. Forever more, writing will be digital and electronic.
  • 14. Plain language in the 1990s1998 EU British translators’ initiative.1995 South Africa Consumer Protection Act.1997 South Africa Constitution.1990s:Initiatives worldwide for clear contracts,government communications, forms andlegal language.
  • 15. My language in the 1990sTalking to my children  Lecturing in Japan. Writing HTML and books on global English and web content.
  • 16. Plain language in the 2000s & 2010s NZ 2006: Lynda Harris launched WriteMark Plain English AwardsNZ 2008: lobby group established. 2010 US: Plain Writing Act.
  • 17. My language in the 2000s & 2010s An explosion of new communication devices, channels, software, languages, regulations. More books written. More life lived.
  • 18. Who noticed? Technical communicators!
  • 19. Reminder: what is plain language?Wording, structure and design are so clear that theintended readers can easily find and understand theinformation they need.1. Put the reader’s needs first.2. Design for the reader.3. Organise information for the reader.4. Use short sentences (about 21 words maximum)5. Use familiar words.
  • 20. Plain language paradox• 40 years old • Still valid• Analogue • Applies to all channels• Paper based • Applies to all devices• Simplistic • Applies to all content• Not sexy • Extends to usability• Boring phrase Extends to accessibility• About writing only: not video, audio, apps…
  • 21. Communication has pixelated into chaosBitsy—irrelevant—too complex—keeps changing!Your job as a technical communicator or staff writersometimes seems impossible.Just squint and you’ll see plain language holds it all together.First principle: put the reader’s needs first!
  • 22. Keep in touch!Rachel McAlpinerachel@contented.comwww.contented.comWe help you to conquercommunication chaosin a digital workplace.