Who decides what constitutes plain language?

Lynda Harris | June 12, 2023

A New Zealand flag flying in a blue sky. New Zealand's Plain Language Act came into effect on 21 April 2023.

New Zealand’s Plain Language Act came into effect on 21 April 2023. Image by Claudette Wicks / Unsplash licence

In a way, we all decide what is plain language and what isn’t. The proof is in the pudding, as the old adage goes.

We can usefully view plain language as a set of techniques proven to make a text more reader friendly, but the real test is how the reader reacts. If a communication is clear and easy to read for its intended audience, it has succeeded, and can be considered plain language.

Three ways to know if your writing is plain

To know if your writing is in plain language:

Use plain language writing techniques

Writing in plain language means having:

Check how your readers react

When reading your writing, your readers should get a sense of:

Checking this is easy. Get one of your likely readers to read a snippet of your writing and tell you how it makes them feel.

Check if your readers get what they need

Ideally, your readers can understand and act on your writing after one reading. If your writing creates a lot of follow-up questions, that’s a sign that you still need to work on giving readers what they need.

A man hands a contract to a woman. The contract is in plain language if she can read it once, understand it, and act on the information.

Can your reader read your document once, understand it, and act on the information? Image by Karolina Grabowska / Pexels licence

A plain language standard can help

Here are two standards you might find useful.

The Write Plain Language Standard

This free standard is a set of techniques to help you tick off all three criteria above.

Download The Write Plain Language Standard

The ISO Plain Language Standard

We’re pretty excited about the long-awaited international standard (ISO). It’s a guidance standard that will include in-depth aspects of plain language. We’ll keep you posted!

Read about the ISO Plain Language Standard on the International Plain Language Federation website

Definitions of plain language can be useful too

In our view, one of the best definitions comes from the International Plain Language Federation. It says:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

And the Plain Language Act 2022 carries a brief description too, describing it simply as language that is:

appropriate to the intended audience; and clear, concise, and well organised.

It’s short and sweet, but captures a lot!

An audit of your writing quality provides an objective view

We can audit 8 to 10 of your documents against either:

Or you can check out the WriteMark Plain Language Standard, and the WriteMark Plus, if you’d like to go a step further and tell the world about your plain language approach.

Visit the WriteMark website

We’re happy to say that The Write Plain Language Standard and the WriteMark Plain Language Standard are perfectly in line with the principles embodied in the ISO Standard.

Read other blogs about the Plain Language Act 2022

How will the Plain Language Act 2022 be enforced?
Does the Plain Language Act 2022 affect how you use reo Māori?
It’s time to unwrap plain language for everyone

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.