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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

Plain language on the rise

Date Released: Sun, 3 July 2011 12:27 +0200

New laws in South Africa declare that we have a right to credit documents and information about consumer goods in plain language.  But in reality, everyday documents like furniture stores' hire-purchase agreements are still written in language that only lawyers understand. Frances Gordon, one of the founders of Simplified, a Johannesburg-based plain language consultancy, explained this situation to linguists at Interactions and Interfaces in a workshop on Wednesday 29 June, and asked them what they could do about it.

People around the world have campaigned to get official documents in plain language in different parts of the world for different reasons. In the UK, a move to plain language was set off by consumers who were sick and tired of being trapped in the fine print of contracts and other legal documents. In the USA, big business started using plain language when they realized that it would save them time and money. In South Africa, the plain language revolution has been driven by legislation. The Constitution and Bill of Rights is written in relatively plain language. While many laws aimed at helping consumers have spoken about plain language in the past, two new laws, the National Credit Act and the Consumer Protection Act, should be revolutionizing the ways in which businesses write. These two laws do not only demand that plain language be used, but they actually define what “plain language” is from a legal perspective.

This has caused some huge shifts in our legal framework: we are moving away from an environment in which “the buyer beware” is the watchword, to one where “the seller beware” is more appropriate. The Consumer Protection Act recommends penalties of R1 million or 10% of a business's net turnover for not using plain language in its documents, whichever is greater. The law opens up the way for big class action lawsuits against businesses who use complicated language to pull the wool over consumers' eyes.

Although South Africa has all these sophisticated laws, there are still only a handful of plain language practitioners helping businesses to comply with them. Gordon urged the linguists present to work plain language into their teaching and present it to students as a great career option. Linguists can also help plain language practitioners to design the type of research that is needed to find out what language “the average consumer” for a particular product would understand, so that businesses and lawyers alike can know the level at which documents should be pitched for consumers.

Article and photo by Ian Siebörger