May 14, 2012

Shall We Continue?

I will be keeping this blog site alive as an archive of 5 years of posts. But any future posts will appear on my LinkedIn business  page for Plain Language Wizardry

If you want to get in touch email me at email @ cherylstephens .com

March 3, 2012

Part 5: History of Plain Language in Canada

5. Volunteer Activities

Early work (mid 80s) in Vancouver developed from the concept of “popular English.” The Progressive Literacy Group published a pamphlet called Writing on Our Side in 1986.

In the late 80s, David Elliott began to report on Canadian activities in “Canada Notes” in the international CLARITY Journal. In 2004, Elliott guest-edited the journal’s #51 which featured 7 other Canadian authors. Australian Robert Eagleson toured Canada in 1989 at the invitation of the CLIC Plain Language Center. After hearing from Eagleson, plain language advocates formed a Working Group that brought local people together.

Cheryl |Stephens began publishing the international newsletter Rapport: News about plain languagein 1991. The Editors Assoc of Canada hosted conference in Toronto: The Plain Language Conference. 1992

Canadians Kate Harrison and Cheryl Stephens founded the Plain Language Network in 1993. It is now known as Plain Language Association International and it holds an international conference every other year. The first 2 PLAIN conferences were in Canada:

I recently discovered that my trove of plain language memorabilia was not destroyed as I had been led to believe. I hope that soon I can share more historic items with you. Please add your own exoeriences via the comments.



February 23, 2012

Part 4: History of Plain Language in Canada

Continuing the series, here is a short bit on finance. I hope you will add your own experiences in the comments below.

4. Financial Industries and Consumer Protections

In 1991, in How Legal Language Evolved, an early leader in writing plain language law, David Elliott, wrote of plain language in consumer documents in the 70s:

It is said to have developed in response to the needs of consumers for documents they could understand and from the new awareness from government and business that plain language brings efficiency and economic benefits.

Consumer banking and insurance

The Canadian banking and insurance industries, and later securities, followed the consumer movement affecting the U.S. industries. The voluntary activities by industry leaders were not adequate to meet the needs of consumers and fairness so governments have begun to use consumer protection laws to require plain language documents.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada began leading plain language developments in insurance policies in 1982.

After publishing the discussion paper Plain Language Consumer Contract in 1991, the Government of Province of Alberta worked with the Alberta Real Estate Association to create plain language real estate contracts and with Consumers’ Association of Canada (Alberta) to create a plain language contracts for home renovations.

In 2000, the Canadian Bankers Association published plain language mortgage documents as examples for use. In 2001, provincial securities regulators began integrating plain language in their operations. The British Columbia Securities Commission published the BCSC Plain Language Style Guide.

Some laws have been enacted and more developments are expected in this field.

February 20, 2012

Part 4: History of Plain Language in Canada

This post continues to review plain language activities in Canada.

3. Needs of economy and workforce

The reason I have for choosing this title for this category is political. It takes money to carry out new initiatives and the federal government has been an important source of plain language activities.

The Conservative Party only supports plain language activity, and rarely, if it can be directly tied to economic issues. Even that argument for improving communication has started to loose their support.



Early surveys of literacy showed that clear presentation and simple wording made information available to people who had low literacy skills. Those people found reading difficult and they would avoid reading seek information from other sources. With the new evidence to support the use of plain language, the literacy professional community was inspired. Ruth Baldwin for the Ontario Literacy Coalition wrote an influential pamphlet, Clear Writing and Literacy.

Local literacy groups began offering plain language workshops to community organizers in 1984. The National Adult Literacy Database ( started collecting resources about plain language and providing them free of charge in 1989. The Clear Language and Design public education service, of the Centre for Community Learning and Development, has trained many plain language writers since 1995.

In 1995, Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a groundbreaking survey that measured adult literacy levels and literacy practices among seven OECD nations, including Canada. Their report Literacy, Economy and Society: Results of the First International Adult Literacy Survey helped launch more support and activity in plain language.


The Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) published a bibliography of Plain Language Resource Materials in 1990. In 1999, they published a Directory of Plain Language Health Information . The CPHA is a national, independent, not-for-profit, voluntary association with links to the international public health community. Since 1997, it has operated a consultancy, the Plain Language Service.

The Canadian government has taken a renewed interest in plain language in the health field in the current century because it is seen as creating cost-savings. Plain language information provides improved health, efficiencies, and cost-savings in the health industry. The Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technology in Health promotes plain language and publishes plain-language versions of Common Drug Review recommendations.


February 11, 2012

Miscellaneous perversions

Here are some things that interested me back in 2006:

Part 3: History of Plain Language in Canada

The first two posts in this series covered the Canadian context and the access-to-justice intiatives in the legal system.

2. Better Governance Initiative

Federal Government

After the 1975 Access to Justice Report, high-level government employees formed the Interdepartmental Plain Language Committee. From their efforts, plain language spread throughout the government. For example, the Justice Department Legal Services Division adopted a service standard of responsiveness, clarity of legal advice, and use of plain language. The Justice Department’s Programs Branch set up the Public Legal Education and Information Program, which spread plain language through its work. The Public Legal Education and Information Network provided a Plain Language Online discussion board on the Internet in the 90s that I managed.

The Canadian government is committed to using plain language in both French and English. It tries to provide clear language for translations to other languages. The communication policy says:

Federal government institutions have an obligation to communicate clearly and effectively with the public. They must use plain language and proper grammar in their communications.

Plain Language

An institution’s duty to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about policies, programs, services and initiatives must be clear, relevant, objective, easy to understand and useful.

Using plain language and proper grammar helps to provide useful information to the public and to ensure clarity and consistency of communication. This principle also applies to internal communications, as well as to information prepared for Parliament or any other official body, whether delivered in writing or in speech. (as last restated in 2006)

Programs were set up to review the readability of publications and forms by the Department of Revenue and Taxation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and others.

Since policy requires public communication that is complete, clear, understandable, and useful, the Office of Auditor General has in past considered plain language and readability when it audited the work of government departments and agencies. The previous Auditor General of Canada Shelia Fraser, who served for 10 years, also believed that the audit reports produced by her staff must be readable to Canadian taxpayers.

The Canadian government published a writing style guide called The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing which adopted plain language in 1987 and since updated. It is now available and maintained online by the Translation Bureau as part of Termium, a general program for quality of language. As of 2008, Canada’s School of Public Service has this message on its website:

Writing in plain language can sometimes be a challenge in the federal government. This practical and interactive course teaches how to write in a more structured and simplified manner. Participants will learn to apply the principles of plain and clear language in order to write more effectively.

Following several studies of the literacy of the Canadian population conducted by Statistics Canada, plain language became a focus for that agency. In addition, the government created the National Literacy Secretariat that also promoted plain language by funding projects:

  • Plain Language: Clear and Simple, a writing manual for government published in 1989 as a combined effort of fourteen federal departments. The National Literacy Secretariat and Human Resources Development published an associated Trainer’s Guide. Three-day training sessions were offered to federal employees and others, based on the book and trainer’s guide.
  • The pamphlet became an online training program in cooperation with the Department of Justice, the Plain Train [], in both English and French.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and their project Target Crime with Literacy ( promoted plain language to police forces and trainers across Canada as a tool to meet the communication needs of Canadians.

Provinces Launch Assorted Programs

Several provinces adopted their own plain language policies to provide plain language information to their residents. The level of activity depends on politics and changes of governments and their budgetary priorities.

Quebec’s Centre of Expertise promotes plain language as a best practice in the delivery of services.

Laws and regulations are often written in plain language. The Yukon Territory first reported its plain language drafting to the Legislative Drafting Section of the Uniform Law Conference of Canada in 1988. In 1990, Alberta produced the first law that required business to use plain language for financial consumers. In the same year, British Columbia produced a new law for its small claims courts and adopted forms in plain language.

Next up: Serving the needs of the economy and the workforce

February 7, 2012

Part 2: The History of Plain Language in Canada

The Canadian governments at various levels have taken up plain language as part of their efforts to

  • Inform the public about law,
  • Train people to read or write in English or French,
  • Raise the skill-levels of the workforce,
  • Deliver health information and services with good effect,
  • Better serve the public though government agencies.

Continuing the series on Canada’s history of plain language, I start with the field I know best–law.

1. Access to Justice Issue

In 1972, the Law Reform Commission of Canada raised the importance of having the public involved in law reform for modernizing the law. In 1973, the Law Reform Commission of Canada advocated for the reform of statute law to make it easier for the average citizen to understand. In 1975, their Report on Access to Justice raised concerns about the inaccessible language in the judicial system. Another Access to Justice Report, in British Columbia 1987, devoted a chapter to plain language.

The governments began efforts to deal with these concerns. Canada has a federal system with 11 provinces and 2 territories. It has a federal court system and separate court systems in each province. Canada also has both a bilingual system and 2 systems of law: common law generally and a legal code in the province of Quebec. It takes time for reforms to take effect across the country and in both legal systems.

Canada’s Institute for Administration of Justice’s holds an annual Writing Institute that includes plain language in its courses for judges and tribunalists. The Canadian Judicial Council publishes model plain-language jury instructions. Canadian Judicial Council advocates for plain language rules and plain language forms. The National Judicial Institute advocated plain language to address the systemic discrimination against those who come before the courts: Literacy in the Courtroom: A guide for judges.

The Canadian Legal Information Centre (CLIC) was set up to deal with the issues raised by the Law Reform Commission. The CLIC set up its Plain Language Center and began a library of plain language resources in 1983. With funding from the National Literacy Secretariat, many of these documents are now available online through the National Literacy Database (

In the 90s, the legal profession and the voluntary association of lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association, began to explore plain language in earnest. In 1995, a respected author, Robert Dick, changed the name of the 3rd edition of his work to Legal Drafting in Plain Language. Cheryl Stephens’s book Plain Language Legal Writing is available, in part, on the website of the voluntary association of lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association. The Association has adopted the use of plain language and influenced the profession through 2 studies:

One was conducted jointly with the Canadian Bankers Association and concluded plain language was needed in legal and business matters. The Decline and Fall of Gobbledygook: Report on Plain Language Documentation, Canadian Bar and Bankers’ Assocs. 1990.

The other, Reading the Legal World, concerned the needs of clients with low literacy skills and coined the term “legal literacy” to discuss the information needs of members of the public with adequate daily literacy skill still have inadequate knowledge of the law and its procedural context to understand its effects. The Lawyers for Literacy group promoted plain language.

The Council of Canadian Administrative Tribunals published Literacy and Access to Administrative Justice in Canada: A guide for the Promotion of Plain Language in 2005. It also instituted 2 levels of online plain language training for its members. Provincial associations have also developed their own plain language training. The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal became the site of a pilot program for plain language.

The B.C. Law Foundation in 2000 funded the creation of an online dictionary of plain language definitions of legal words and words related to the court procedures. With translation to 8 languages, the Multilingual and Court-Related Dictionary is available at

February 5, 2012

A History of Plain Language in Canada

I recently worked with some other Canadians to identify the major events in plain language in Canada for a book. I took their material and my own and wrote about Canada’s plain language experience for another publication. Now I want to show you what I have compiled in this process: a 40-year history plain language in Canada, in brief.

Since I was not aware at that time that I would be reporting, my memory of events may be flawed. I certainly had my own perspective; I noticed that the contributions of others were focused on their own experiences. So I invite anyone to contribute in the comments below that which they remember differently or that they experienced and may not have come to be known widely at the time.

This series will run to 3 or 4 posts.

Canada’s Setting for Plain Language

A few things most people won’t know about Canada:

  • From the Atantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the greatest width of Canada is 9,306 km. This covers 6 time zones.
  • Canada is 9.9 million square kilometers, the world’s second-largest country by total area, and the largest in the western Hemisphere.
  • Canada’s population has grown from 28 million in 1991 to an estimated 35 million in 2012.
  • About 4/5s of Canada’s population lives within 150 kilometres of the United States border.

Canada is officially bilingual (French and English) but, as a country of immigrants, many languages are spoken here and referred to as non-official. The First Nations people also strive to preserve their own Aboriginal languages.

This chart gives the most-used non-official languages used in Canada and the number of identified speakers. Yet another 2 million people speak other languages.

Non-official languages        6,147,840 speakers

Chinese                         1,012,065

Cantonese                       361,450

Mandarin                        170,950

Chinese, n.o.s.                456,705

Italian                             455,040

German                          450,570

Polish                              211,175

Spanish                           345,345

Portuguese                     219,275

Punjabi                            367,505

Ukrainian                        134,500

Arabic                              261,640

Dutch                               128,900

Tagalog (Pilipino)           235,615

Greek                              117,285

Vietnamese                    141,630

Cree                                  78,855

Inuktitut (Eskimo)         32,380

Canadian Philosophy of Plain Language

Canada took up plain language to serve democratic values. Canadians believe:

1. People must be able to see and understand the laws that rule their lives.

2. Since we hold people responsible to laws, they have a right to know the law.

3. People do not really have rights unless they know and understand those rights.

4. People need to know basic law to do their daily business.

… more soon




January 22, 2012

ClearMark Awards Season

Nominate a publication, form, website, or policy document that uses plain language principles. The ClearMark season is upon us. Don’t even think about the Academy Awards until you’ve sent in your nomination! Nominate your own work–why not? Mention the positive impact of your work: improved response rate? lower costs? better compliance? reduced questions into your call center?

You have until March 3.

ClearMark Awards honor the best clear communication in government, academia, and the private sector. Let your clear communication be a model for other organizations!

Learn how to submit for a ClearMark Award from the Center for Plain Language at


January 16, 2012

After the global success of International Plain Language Day 2011, the plans for an even greater event are officially underway for IPLDay 2012 October 13. If you have plain language ideas, expertise, or stories to tell, here is your chance. IPLDay 2012 has incorporated  SlideShare and YouTube presentation options for an online program for that day.

Local events will also be organized. We will announce those as soon as local organizers let us know what they will be doing.

IPDay has a blog set up to give you all the details in one place. My co-organizer is Kate Harrison Whiteside and we feel sharing our commitment to plain language on new and social media platforms will help spread the word and keep it on the world’s agenda.

Here is how you can support and share information about IPLDay 2012.

LinkedIn – Plain Language Advocates and IPLDay sub group

Facebook – Page

Twitter – #iplday

Spread the word.


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