November 24, 2004

A plain English reading level

I received two interesting responses to my post on jury instruction reform in California. They each made me believe even more strongly that there are some real alternative employment opportunities for linguists that are being missed here.

The first response was from Danielle McCredden, a Senior Associate at a law firm in Australia:

Interestingly, when I went through law school in Australia, the plain english movement was well in swing, but never in any sort of systematic sense. Legalese and technical language was considered a stylistic flaw and would be marked down.

The program in a broad sense was supported by our federal government, and all of our legislative drafting changed over in the early eighties sometime. The reason I found your post interesting is because of an anecdotal understanding that Australian law graduates are popular with US firms for the reason that they are better at plain english drafting. I have no reason to know why this might be the case, or whether in fact it is true.

Suppose this is in fact true. I'm sure that at least some US law firms are into (the idea of) plain English. So why don't they just hire some linguists as consultants, rather than (what amounts to) outsourcing from Oz? (Outback-sourcing?)

I'm also sure that at least some US law firms are decidedly not into any kind of plain English (as Kevin Russell cynically noted with respect to at least some members of the medical profession). They could also hire some linguists, to help further clarify their language for each other and to obfuscate it for the rest of us.

The second response came from my good friend Ed Keer, a Senior Copywriter for a US healthcare branding agency:

Reading level is big in healthcare too. Pfizer has a whole department devoted to Clear Health Communications. They use a bunch of consultants, none of which, as far as I can tell, are linguists. They fixate on using reading level tests like Fry or Flesch which basically boil down to short words and short sentences. They are satisfying because they give an objective measure of the reading level (ha!). So they get a number they can hang onto even if the number is meaningless. Some of the consultants I talked to are much less interested in the number and more concerned about common sense stuff. Still most of the consumer stuff we've written comes off sounding like Dick and Jane and is pretty bad.

I'm sure the CA law will incorporate a Fry test. Too bad.

Ed's been telling me for years about some of the nonsense that reading level tests can produce when followed blindly by folks who know next to nothing about language or linguistics. Fortunately, at least some plain English groups (as identified via a Google search for "plain english") appear to be well-aware of the limitations of reading level tests. For example, the Plain English Campaign in the UK has the following on their FAQ page (emphasis added):

Do you recommend the FOG index or the 'Flesch test'?

The FOG index was a very rough measure of 'readability', created by a man named Robert Gunning in the 1940s, and used in Plain English Campaign's first report, 'Small Print', in the early 1980s. We do not recommend it, or any other mathematical formula for measuring readability. You cannot give a document a score for plain English - either it is crystal-clear or it isn't. There is no substitute for testing a document on real people.

If you use Microsoft Word, you may have seen the 'Flesch reading ease' score. This is based on a combination of sentence length and how many syllables are used. Rudolf Flesch, who created the system, warned that 'Some readers, I am afraid, will expect a magic formula for good writing and will be disappointed with my simple yardstick. Others, with a passion for accuracy, will wallow in the little rules and computations but lose sight of the principles of plain English. What I hope for are readers who won't take the formula too seriously and won't expect from it more than a rough estimate.'

Not too unreasonable-sounding, though I don't have time to read on and find out what they do recommend, or if they have any linguists on staff. I looked a little more closely at The Plain Language Action and Information Network, a US "government-wide group of volunteers working to improve communications from the federal government to the public." (The fact that their acronym spells PLAIN, like FAIR, feels like cheating to me for some reason, but that's a story for another post.) This group of volunteers has produced an interesting-looking document on "Writing User-Friendly Documents", but judging from the little I have browsed through so far, it looks like linguist volunteers are in short supply.

If you Google for "fog index" or "flesch test", you get hit after hit of the kind of reading-level nonsense that Ed is talking about ("fry test" gives you similar results, among the obvious food-related hits).

Similar nonsense can be found in A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents (yes, from the US Securities and Exchange Commission):

What Is a "Plain English" Document?

We'll start by dispelling a common misconception about plain English writing. It does not mean deleting complex information to make the document easier to understand. For investors to make informed decisions, disclosure documents must impart complex information. Using plain English assures the orderly and clear presentation of complex information so that investors have the best possible chance of understanding it.

Plain English means analyzing and deciding what information investors need to make informed decisions, before words, sentences, or paragraphs are considered. A plain English document uses words economically and at a level the audience can understand. Its design is visually appealing. A plain English document is easy to read and looks like it's meant to be read.

A few pages later, the handbook advises the reader to "[a]ssemble the team or move ahead on your own", the disjunction virtually guaranteeing that a linguist will never be hired as the "lead writer who ensures the document uses a logical structure and simple, clear language."

As with a lot of things in life, it's the preparation that often determines the success or failure of an effort to write documents in plain English. Many of you routinely select a team to think and talk about how to write a document from scratch or rewrite an existing document. Or you may do it on your own. In that case, rest assured that one person can do it alone.

Not too reassuring to linguists seeking to enter this job market. Unfortunately, it appears that the only way for linguists to infiltrate is to make connections the old-fashioned way: law school, business school, medical school, the Ivy League ... or, perhaps someday, major league sports.

Or, design school. The quote above from the SEC Plain English Handbook explicitly mentions design, as does the Plain English Campaign's FAQ: "Plain English takes into account design and layout as well as language." Naturally, the point of plain English is better communication through the better use of the tools of communication, including (but not limited to) language. This should appeal to the sensibilities of linguists keen to the fact that language is not limited to being a tool of communication.

UPDATE. Two more responses. Melissa Fox writes:

God, wouldn't it be great if law firms *did* keep linguists on staff, either to clear up or muddy up their language, as they preferred? I did three years hard time as a paralegal between my BS and MA, and only occasionally was I asked to read documents for clarity and suggest ways to make them make more sense (which is fair, since that wasn't actually my job). Mainly, when people heard my degree was in linguistics, their only response was -- well, you can guess. "Yeah? How many languages do you speak?"

When I asked Melissa if I could quote her, she replied: "Feel free. :-) (And will you let us know if there *are* law firms hiring linguists? I've got the experience, now. Heh.)" If only I had that kind of information at hand.

Mike Pope of Evolving English writes:

Enjoyed your post on the dubious value of reading scores.

Since MS Word actually offers this "feature," a while back we played around with it at work just for fun. (I'm a technical writer.) No surprises there, really. The exercise did, however, inspire me to write [this].

And someone who prefers to remain anonymous writes:

I've got a degree in linguistics and work for a European law firm. My job is to make sure our lawyers' English documents are well written. I was hired because they needed a native speaker of English to rework documents written by non-native speakers--not because they were concerned about writing more clearly in their own language(s). I've learned at this job that lawyers mostly have no idea what linguists do or what linguists know--and they don't often care to find out. Many lawyers are too proud to accept criticism of their writing or (God forbid) to sit down for a seminar on writing skills. I also get the sense that some lawyers think baffling legal jargon and tortured syntax will impress their clients.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at November 24, 2004 02:44 PM