Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

How New Zealand Consumers Respond to Plain English

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

How New Zealand Consumers Respond to Plain English

Article excerpt

"Few experiences are as refreshing as finding a contract we can read," says Crow (1988, p. 86) in his article discussing consumer contracts, readability, and comprehension. Crow's statement will, in turn, be refreshing for many, who will find that they are not alone in feeling annoyed, confused, frustrated, and even intimidated or stupid when confronted with a document that they feel is beyond their comprehension.

As citizens and consumers we encounter every day and in almost every sphere of activity documents that are less than readable, be they law and regulations, instructions, manuals, insurance policies, and so on. Criticism of writing that is difficult to understand is not new, and over the centuries there have been attempts to change the way official and other public documents are written so that they are understandable to those who must read them. As early as the sixteenth century, for example, an English judge ordered a hole cut through the centre of a particularly lengthy document filed in his court. He then ordered the writer, who puffed up the document from 16 pages to 120, to be led around, with the head stuffed through the hole, in front of all those attending court (Asprey, 1991; Wydick, 1985).

More recent calls for readable documents can be seen in writings since the middle of this century by writers such as Rudolf Flesch (1949/1974), Sir Ernest Gowers (1954/1986), and Stuart Chase (1954/1971). Many law professors and practitioners have also advocated simpler legal language, including language used in contracts (e.g., Conard, 1947; Hager, 1959; Mehler, 1960-1961; Mellinkoff, 1963/1973; Kimble, 1987, 1992; Garner, 1991a, 1991b). Usually written in long, convoluted sentences with archaic words and legal terms, contracts are notorious for being difficult, if not altogether impossible, for people with no legal training to understand. In this paper I describe a study conducted to test the level of consumer comprehension of some bank contracts in New Zealand and the effect of using plain English to rewrite them.

A History of the Plain English Movement

The greatest impetus for change in the way public documents were written was the consumer movement in the United States in the 70's. The movement not only led to better products and services but also eventually affected aspects of language used in the documents which described those products and services (Eagleson, 1991b). "Plain English" has been put forward as an alternative to "legalese" and other types of "gobbledegook," resulting in the first plain English car insurance policy, introduced by Sentry Insurance in 1974. This achievement was followed in 1975 by the first plain English loan note by Citibank, a major bank in New York. Other insurance companies and banks as well as businesses in other industries have since followed Sentry's and Citibank's lead in making their documents more readily understandable to consumers (see, for example, Good, 1989; Jereb, 1991; Martin, 1989; Meitin, 1985). One of the most recent developments is the work done by Securities and Exchange Commission, which has produced a plain English handbook on how to create clear disclosure documents (Office of Investor Education and Assistance, 1998).

Plain English is, according to Eagleson (1990), "clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is the language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction" (p. 4). Its language is "unadorned with archaic, multisyllabic words and majestic turns of phrase that even educated readers cannot understand" (Redish, 1985, p. 125). It is "a full version of the language, complete and accurate, . . . written with the readers' needs in mind" (McLaren, 1996, p. 2) and "conveys the writer's message in an effective and efficient manner" (Law Reform Commission of Victoria, 1987, p. 3). Some guidelines advocated by plain English proponents include using plain words, keeping the average sentence length short, avoiding nominalizations and passive constructions, personalizing the message with first and second-person pronouns, and using examples and scenarios to help explain concepts. …

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