Photo courtesy of Barnes & Nobles.
Compare the following over-the-counter drug labels that have the same content in different formats:
Photos courtesy of Plain Language.
The bottom label is undoubtedly the easier one to read and understand because the author used “plain language,” or “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” (PlainLanguage). In addition, they used different modalities, such as bold lettering, various font sizes, bullet points, and effective use of space (despite how small the backsides of medicine are).
ENGFISH: HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE IT?
The mistake that most students make, including me, is the tendency to use too many words in order to sound scholarly. In fact, Ken Macrorie creates a word for it, Engfish, in his article “The Poisoned Fish.” My definition of Engfish is that it is a wordy weapon inflicted on students to sound smart. Macrorie suggests that textbooks are responsible for the ways that students write and that redundancy and unnecessary words are the underlying issues. To fix these issues, we should use plain language.
MY PERSONAL EXAMPLE: CAN YOU RELATE?
In my personal life, I found that I cannot speak to my mother in ways that I can speak to my brother. For example, when I text my mother, I have to be considerate of the words I use and how to construct them into sentences that are easy for her to understand and that do not require any further explanation. However, the texts I send my brother contain more complex words, implications, and other language that would be a burden to my mother in everyday conversation. The difference is in their education levels. My mother has no college degree, but my brother has a master’s degree. Forty percent of Americans have a college degree, which means we need to accommodate our writings for the other 60 percent without a college education by using plain language. Is this always possible?
STEM FIELDS AND PLAIN LANGUAGE: LIKE OIL AND WATER?
I think that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses intimidate and discourage people from investing their education in those fields. Applying plain language principles to make them less intimidating is difficult because STEM fields contain jargon associated with their specialized subjects. Yes, every field has its set of jargon, but STEM jargon is not easily (or accurately) defined in a dictionary or understood by the average person.
TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION AND PLAIN LANGUAGE
Similarly, technical communicators need to use plain language because it is intimidating not to do so. However, unlike STEM fields, it is an easier field to apply plain language principles. Technical communicators often already use tables to organize information and use pictures as examples—think of our Writer Designer booklet, and now imagine it without the tables and pictures. Plain language is very effective under these circumstances.
PLAIN LANGUAGE: WHAT IS THE RISK?
The biggest risk of plain language is unwanted results from the lack of information. For example, in a previous technical communications class, I had to write a recipe for Swiss chard rolls. It was a fairly long recipe, and I found it too intimidating for the average cook, so I got carried away with the “backspace” button and eliminated important steps in the process. For instance, the cook had to take out the rib of the leaves so that it was pliable and easier to roll, but I did not explain how to do that. Likewise, the cook had to dry the Swiss chard leaves after blanching them, but I never specified the best technique to dry them. Therefore, many users ended up with soggy rolls that kept falling apart.
EVALUATE YOUR AUDIENCE CAREFULLY:
IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME.
Also, my target audience was current vegetarians, so I assumed they knew certain ingredients, such as tempeh. However, most of the vegetarians in my user-testing were at various levels; some just started as vegetarians and some were veterans of the diet. I learned that I had to evaluate my audience further, so this led me to believe that I was solely responsible for making sure my audience knew everything from different cooking equipment to the difference between shredded cheese and grated cheese. I created a quick checklist for evaluating the audience based on information provided by the Center for Plain Language:
- List the different levels of education of the audience
- List what people want to know
- Anticipate what readers already know and what they need to know to complete the task
- Use words the audience knows
- List characteristics of the groups that should influence design
SERVICE LEARNING AND PLAIN LANGUAGE:
HOW DOES YOUR PROJECT RELATE?
Lastly, I think it is worth noting how this topic relates to our service learning project. I would relate plain language to it in a couple of ways. For instance, my group’s project focuses on creating an annual report and newsletter templates. The audience for both of these projects will be the donors of Our House. Annual reports have more formal and scholarly tones compared to newsletters. Therefore, we have to maintain some level of academic writing. However, we have to keep in mind that our projects are not limited to the current donors. Potential donors have access as well, which puts us in a position to aim for plain language.
Center for Plain Language.
PBS News Hour. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/percentage-americans-college-degrees-rises-paying-degrees-tops-financial-challenges/
3 thoughts on “Blog#6: Less Is More, Right?”
Your blog post clearly defines plain language and examples of it. I like how you compared it to your personal use of plain language with your mom and brother. It really is a language barrier if you really think about it. I have to talk a certain way to my mother in texts than I would my fiancee or friends. I also realize people with different educational backgrounds speak differently than people who have masters or bachelors degree. This especially goes with English/Journalism majors towards people with degrees in IT or Doctoral. The way we speak is way different from how they speak to us. There are some words they do not know or some lingual that we use for common words in the English/Journalism world. Then it leaves to the question you asked of “if we should limit our language based on people without college degrees.” I disagree/agree with this statement. I feel that I should talk the way I want to talk based on my educational background. If a person cannot understand because they do not have a college degree, then I will not define it for them. Thats my opinion on it. Sure, I will not talk college level with a two year old or high schooler. But someone who is around my age or older….I should not be limited to use plain language. Overall, your post goes into detail on plain language and uses great examples on it. Awesome job Karina!
While this is a well written and thought out blog post, I must disagree with you on several points. Firstly, after looking at the two drug labels you posted, in my opinion, the language of both labels are the same. The comprehensability (college level word!) of the second label is not predicated (college strikes again) on the use of plain language, its, as you briefly touched on, based on the different use of modality. Furthermore, I become a bit uncomfortable, when we begin to use college degrees as an indicator of one’s ability to comprehend. Even college students and graduates, struggle with the “job-specific” vernacular of certain fields. For example, I take expository writing with mainly English majors. Being a senior philosophy major, I have developed, at least I would like to think, a high level of reading comprehension, yet I sit in t class reading the likes of Jules Prown and Peter Elbow, for lack of a better phrase… CONFUSED AS HELL. As the semester progresses I am slowly, but surely beginning to understand the readings better, not because my reading comprehension level has dramatically increased, but because I am beginning to learn the “job-specific” vernacular of material culture. The fact of the matter is that , certain fields have there own tool box of words, and and your ability to comprehend those words, isn’t necessarily based on whether or not one has a college degree.
I definitely agree with you on this- in America, we really do need to be mindful of the writing level we use. I loved your example of speaking to your brother versus your mother, since while my mother is fantastic verbally with English, since it is her second language, she does struggle at times with certain phrases I might use, or text her with.
Your use of graphics in this article made a strong point. Being in the newspaper industry, I face the same issue with getting reader attention. The average American reading level is at about 5th grade, so it’s hard for me to cater myself down to that level, especially as an English major. Furthermore, we have to keep the page visually appealing. If I have just a huge block of text on the page, the reader will likely read a headline or two, photo captions and any charts or graphics we have.
In order to keep people’s attention (as the attention span is shortening drastically with the popularity of the internet), we have to divide the page into chunks of text with subheaders, as you have done in your blog post here. Through the use of chunking, you ensure that the reader remains engaged and the color adds a nice pop, fighting off the threat of monotony that can easily dominate blog posts.