Twelve years ago, President Obama signed the U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010 into law. This act requires federal websites to use language that visitors can actually understand. Government agencies have purged their websites of stuffy words like “heretofore” and have simplified their grammar and syntax. Here’s one example of a simple switch to plain language:
Original: When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.
Plain language: If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away. (source)
Plain Language is also codified in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, a set of recommendations by the World Wide Web Consortium for ensuring digital accessibility. These guidelines prompt web developers to clarify jargon, idioms, and abbreviations and to calibrate content to a lower secondary education level.
Although plain language is gaining traction as a best practice for accessibility and inclusion, it’s often at odds with our training and disciplinary conventions. In academia, jargon and esoteric expertise function as gatekeeping mechanisms. In fact, we often respect impenetrable arguments as long as they’re delivered confidently. For example, a 1970 psychology experiment on student evaluations revealed that professors and graduate students alike favorably rated a guest lecture full of double-talk, non sequiturs, and made-up jargon. The engaging actor posing as esteemed professor “Dr. Myron Fox” delivered the nonsensical talk with an air of authority and humor, thus revealing the power of the Dr. Fox effect.
How can using plain language help students and others who may read our work? Shorter sentences and paragraphs minimize visual clutter on the page and help readers digest content more efficiently. This is especially helpful for people with dyslexia or other learning disabilities. Avoiding (or at least clarifying) jargon supports English language learners and can also foster a more welcoming exposure to your discipline. In addition, Iva W. Cheung argues that we have an ethical imperative to reduce the cognitive load for marginalized populations. Use of plain language is one way to reduce cognitive load.
Plain language is crucial beyond the classroom as well. While we urge folks to “do their own research” on critical issues like climate change and vaccine safety, peer-reviewed scholarship remains inaccessible behind academic paywalls and impenetrable jargon. It’s no wonder folks flock to social media and the first few Google results for information to base their research.
Tips for Writing Accessibly
Fortunately, plain language shares many characteristics of the good writing we ask of our students:
Use active voice
Avoid or clarify jargon
Organize and divide content into scannable chunks
Provide context and don’t assume expertise
Unlike academic writing, plain language encourages use of contractions and first- and second-person pronouns
For more on Plain Language, see the following resources:
To access captions and speed up the video, select the play button to launch YouTube and then navigate to the bottom toolbar. Near the closed captions icon (CC), there's a gear icon that brings up playback speeds.
Video description: A middle-aged man wearing glasses and a suit speaks at a podium before a small audience. He occasionally glances down at his notes and frequently uses hand gestures.