Putting plain language through its paces

Posted on 15/04/2016 · Posted in Dialogos, Plain Language

Along with keeping your sentences short and writing in the active voice, avoiding negative formulation always seems to make it to the list of top ten tips for plain language writing.

Negative formulation increases the mental capacity required for processing, increasing the chances that the reader could misunderstand the clause. Furthermore, a negative formulation could create a negative image of the organisation sending the communication. Consider the following example:

Original: [The company] is not liable for any losses or damages which you may suffer, regardless of how such losses or damages arise, unless the claims are directly attributable to fraud, dishonesty or gross negligence of [The company] or its employees acting in the course and scope of their employment. [The company] is under no circumstances responsible for any indirect, special or consequential losses or damages.

Revised: [The company] holds adequate professional indemnity and fidelity insurance cover. This means that we are covered against claims that are directly attributable to fraud, dishonesty or gross negligence of employees (not intermediaries) acting in the course and scope of their employment. Note that you cannot claim for any losses you may suffer that arise for other reasons and you cannot claim for any consequential (also referred to as indirect or special) losses.

The meaning has not changed in the revised version although we added the first sentence about the insurance cover. While the original formulation focusses on what the client may not claim for, the revised version states clearly that there are instances when the client may claim. We asked a group of potential clients whether they felt differently about the revised version than the original and the outcome was thirteen to three in favour of the revised version. The three reactions not in favour of the revision were not negative, but neutral. Here are the most notable reactions:

“The second version makes me feel like ‘care’ was taken; it is inclusive and considerate and I can trust the institution even though I may lose my money.”

“I prefer the second version. It creates the impression that [The company] takes responsibility rather than trying to avoid responsibility.”

“The second version puts my mind at ease.”

“The second version first tells the client that they have insurance cover and what it means and then what they cannot claim for. It just makes a more positive impression.”

“It sounds as if [the company] are taking responsibility.”

“The second version makes more sense. It is in laymen’s terms as opposed to the ‘lawyer language’. So the new version is cleaner and more intuitive and understandable.”

We often read plain language tips and question whether they would really make a difference. From these results we can deduce that positive formulation not only increases reader comprehension, but it also has a positive influence on the reader’s perception of the company. A positive image means increased trust and a better relationship between the client and the company. I’d say that’s a worthwhile difference.

This article was written by the Language Centre and Elizabeth de Stadler and appeared in Consumer Law Review, March 2016.