“What is plain language?” you may ask. In a nutshell, plain language communicates concepts and ideas clearly, concisely and effectively. This is done by thinking about the projected target audience: the readers. When you write clearly, you avoid using jargon that only select people know. You also avoid verbiage and overly complex ideas. Contrary to popular belief, plain language does not equate to dull, lifeless writing; it does not obscure meaning, nor does it insult intelligence.1 No wonder plain language has made headway in noteworthy sectors such as legal, administrative and medical.
Language associations, such as Editors Canada, have promoted plain language for the past number of years. Many facilitators have organized workshops around the very subject, and they continue to do so today. So far, I have noticed that plain language has spread extensively in English Canada. Back in October 2014, for instance, a CBC News story revealed that Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) documents were chock full of gobbledygook, making the task of filing income taxes difficult for thousands of Canadians, for they didn’t know if they owed the government money or if the government owed them. Canadians also had difficulty understanding standard letters or notices they received from the CRA. A New York City–based agency examined each document and concluded that communications were “poorly organized, confusing, unprofessional, unduly severe, bureaucratic, one-sided and just plain dense.”2 Since the CBC broke this story, the CRA found ways to improve clarity: individuals can now receive correspondence online and suggest ways to make texts easier to understand. In addition, the agency has rewritten all its documents.
In February 2015, Toronto Star journalist Catherine Porter wrote a piece explaining the hard time she had understanding her children’s report cards. Here is just some of the unclear writing she came across: “My son ‘has demonstrated having had some difficulty following a series of specific instructions or steps to establish priorities and manage time to achieve goals.’” “One 6-year-old ‘will be encouraged to use her knowledge of sentence structure and the available resources to write stories.’” “A 7-year-old ‘is beginning to use the resources available in class more effectively to assess information and complete her tasks with more accuracy.’”3 Like many parents, Porter had no idea what any of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) observations meant. In the first observation, for instance, is the TDSB suggesting that her son doesn’t pay attention? Or he can’t follow instructions carefully? In the second, is the TDSB stating that the six-year-old is capable of writing well? And what about the third statement? I’m at a loss there.
More recently, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the CRTC, ruled that cable and satellite providers must improve how they write their bills to ensure consumers better understand what they read. The Commission has also instructed providers to “clearly set out, in the bills, the duration of promotional offers, including the regular price after discounts expire, and lay out what obligations the customer has in terms of a minimum commitment period …”4 Rules will kick in as of September 2017.
Has Quebec caught on to plain language? The answer depends on the individual business. My colleague Jean-François Melançon believes that plain language is a scarce commodity, since a business’s communication officers may not necessarily have the skills needed to write clearly. According to Jean-François, the socio-educational environment is also to blame: Quebec’s current education system does not promote plain language skills, resulting in students handing in long-winded, repetitive and wordy assignments to their professors. And he says not only that the literacy rate among French Quebecers is low but also that most French-Canadian texts glare with anglicisms. He’s skeptical about plain language seeing the light of day any time soon.5
I have noticed that plain language hasn’t fully registered in some provincial government circles. Once a year, I am required to fill out a monthly statement for independent workers, a form provided by Emploi-Québec.6 At first glance, the form looks easy to understand: you simply fill in the boxes that apply to your professional or financial reality, and voilà! You’re done. A week or two after submitting the form, I received a call from my agent, who informed me some numbers didn’t add up. We spent over 30 minutes discussing discrepancies. When I asked questions about the terms the ministry used, I was in for some nasty surprises. For starters, too much jargon cluttered the form. What do terms like local commercial mean?7 The form also suffers from a lack of organization (the same problem the CRA had). It’s not clear what you need to provide for evaluation, giving way to possible errors that may be construed as false information.
Just before the holiday break, a client asked me if I could translate a business website. I accepted. Like the Emploi-Québec form, some of the website text suffered from gobbledygook, making it hard to effectively convey the French into English. I ultimately managed to provide good translation solutions with an editor’s assistance. This invites the question: How far can English editors and translators go to improve unclear French copy without changing overall meaning? Part of the answer lies in how well you know your clients. Can they take constructive criticism? Are they open to suggestions?
On the upside, I’ve noticed that some French-speaking professionals have understood the importance of writing clearly. In my four years of freelancing, I have occasionally worked for companies whose clients come from the federal government. Whenever I translated text from French into English or edited English translations, the French copy was generally well written and easy to understand.
Jean-François Melançon states that plain language is a privilege within large-scale companies such as Desjardins, a renowned credit union. This institution regularly hires professionals, and plain language is part of their training.8
Lastly, plain language has caught on in the province’s bar association, the Barreau du Québec.9 Registered charities such as Éducaloi have followed in the Barreau’s footsteps.10 The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has adapted plain language techniques for French-language municipal administrations.11
Previous “English Editing in Quebec” post: All About Style.
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1 Frances Peck, “Putting it Plainly.” 2005. Language Update, Volume 2, Number 4. Public Works and Government Services Canada. Accessed Jan. 12, 2016: http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/favart/index-eng.html?lang=eng&lettr=indx_autr8jiZHa-hDjSg&page=9jmUztrbPIoo.html#zz8jiZHa-hDjSg
2 Dean Beeby, “Revenue Canada’s letters full of gobbledegook, internal report finds.” 2014. CBC News. Accessed Jan. 12, 2016: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/revenue-canada-s-letters-full-of-gobbledegook-internal-report-finds-1.2814181
3 Catherine Porter, “My kids’ report cards get failing grade.” 2015. Toronto Star. Accessed Jan. 12, 2016: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/02/23/catherine-porter-cant-understand-her-kids-report-cards.html
4 “New CRTC rules will simplify cable and satellite TV billing.” 2016. CBC News. Accessed Jan. 12, 2016: http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/crtc-cable-tv-billing-1.3393768
5 Personal communication.
6 The exact title is Déclaration mensuelle de l’état des revenus et des dépenses d’un travailleur autonome. No English version seems to exist.
7 Following our conversation, I learned that this term refers to a residence (apartment, condominium) having two or more rooms. One of these can be your office space.
8 Personal communication.
9 “Le langage clair : Un outil indispensable à l’avocat.” 2012. Barreau du Québec. Accessed Jan. 12, 2016: http://www.barreau.qc.ca/fr/avocats/praticien/langage-clair/
10 “Le langage clair en droit.” 2016. Éducaloi. Accessed Jan. 12, 2016: https://www.educaloi.qc.ca/services-et-ressources/organisations/langage-clair-en-droit
11 Clair et simple! Communiquer plus efficacement dans le secteur municipal. Canadian Union of Public Employees. 2007. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016: https://scfp.ca/sites/cupe/files/Trousse_Clair_et_simple_-_Partie_2.pdf