The power of plain English

December 11, 2009

I was unable to go to the ASTC (NSW) Conference this year, which was held in Sydney in conjunction with the Plain English Foundation’s international conference. However, I’ve been reading some glowing reports from various attendees.

One mentioned Angela Colter’s presentation on the assessment of credit card disclosure documents that she did for the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). The slides are interesting, but for me, there were two that REALLY stood out.

The first shows the median reading level of US adults (Grade 8), against the reading grade level of card member agreements (Grade 12) and annual percentage rate information (Grade 17). Scary stuff:

The second illustrated the power of plain English by comparing text on one of those credit card agreements before and after plain language principles were applied:

Some of the presentations from this conference are available here: http://www.plainenglishfoundation.com/Paperspresentations/Workshoppapers/tabid/3292/Default.aspx

See also:

[Links last checked November 2009]


  1. I probably spent more time figuring out how to communicate the information on that first slide than all the rest of them combined.

    The readability analysis of the different disclosures produced quite a lot of data. Originally, I used a plain old table to show which document scored what grade level using which formula. It showed a lot of detail but … so what? It didn’t communicate that these numbers were way above what most folks can be expected to read and understand.

    It wasn’t until I got rid of all the numbers except the two average grade level scores and pulled in another data point (the median reading level of U.S. adults) that the graphic became something you understand immediately rather than something you have to figure out.

    Glad you liked the slides!

  2. Quite scary as it indicates that many people don’t know the terms and conditions of their credit and their interest rates. Not good.

    What is it that makes people write like that? I’d really like to know.

    I work in an environment where I edit material written by non-native English speakers. The tendency to overcomplicate the language in both English and their native Chinese is slightly insane. Basically nobody understands it.

  3. […] The power of plain English: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/the-power-of-plain-english/ […]

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