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Legislation needed for new plain English culture

Legislation needed for new plain English culture

Write Group—14 July 2008

For immediate release

Plain English crusader Lynda Harris says far too many organisations still produce gobbledygook, and New Zealand needs legislation to help bring about a new plain English culture.

Her consulting company, Write Group Limited, trains organisations in plain English writing and she says her staff encounter shocking examples of unclear and imprecise writing every day. Much of it is in documents containing important information such as those produced by government, banks, insurance companies and legal firms.

"The results are potentially disastrous! People can be hurt when they sign up to loans or insurance policies without understanding the fine print. Sometimes important information is buried in page after page of poorly set out text.

"A lot of people miss out on benefits or entitlements simply because they can't understand the documents explaining them."

Write Group Limited established the WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards in 2006 to highlight the need for plain English and to publicly honour organisations that do try to communicate clearly.

"Each year more businesses and government departments enter, so the Awards are making a difference. There's still a long way to go, however, and change needs to come from the top.

"We need the Government to lead by example and adopt plain English legislation like that just passed in the United States. This would send the clear message that people have a democratic right to honest and transparent dealings."

In April the United States House of Representatives passed the Plain Language in Government Communications Act, which requires all federal documents and tax forms to be written in simple language.

Plain English Power, a committee formed to lobby Parliament for plain English legislation, is publicly drafting a New Zealand version of the American legislation on its website ( Chairperson Rachel McAlpine says, to succeed, the Bill would require cross-party support.

"Our draft Bill will be given to the next parliament. We know that all the main parties have MPs who believe in our cause."

The idea is supported by ACT. The party's Regulatory Responsibility Bill would require new Acts and regulations to be written without "imprecision and complexity", so ordinary citizens can easily understand them and comply with the law.

ACT leader Rodney Hide says making the use of plain English part of the performance reviews of all government chief executives would rapidly improve the readability of government communications.

Meanwhile New Zealanders can nominate government or business documents, either good or bad, for the 2008 WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards. As well as prizes for good writing, 'Brainstrain' awards are given each year to gobbledygook-filled documents or websites that could do the most harm.

Anyone wishing to submit their own or someone else's writing for an award can do so at the Plain English Awards website ( Entries close 28 July.

The Awards will be judged by a panel of professional plain English practitioners and advocates. Winners will be announced at a ceremony on 11 September hosted by Fair Go presenter Kevin Milne.


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