Plain language is a civil right

Plain language is a civil right

Access to information is essential for us to participate in society and lead healthy lives. Plain language helps us access that information, understand it, and use it to exercise our civil rights.

I was intrigued why the International Plain Language Federation chose to call their 2021 conference “plain language is a civil right.” So here’s my layperson’s understanding of the connection between plain language and civil rights.

[In this article…]

What does plain language have to do with civil rights?

So what does plain language have to do with civil rights? (I’m not a lawyer so this is a purely layperson understanding of all this!)

Britannica defines civil rights as

guarantees of equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, or other personal characteristics.

Rebecca Hamlin, “Civil rights,” Britannica, updated 18 August 2021

To get those equal opportunities and equal protection, we need access to information. Information isn’t the only thing we need, but we can’t even begin if we don’t have information.

So when we write clearly, it helps people access that information, and understand and use it.

What if you couldn’t read very well?

Did you know that only about half the population of OECD countries (the world’s wealthier countries) are functionally literate? That means one out of every two people does not have the reading skills to manage daily living and work.

Just think about this for a sec.

How much of your day do you spend reading? (As asked by Cathy Basterfield of Access Easy English.)

Well, I read all day! Yes, I’m an editor and have to read for work, but I also read (many 🥴) letters and messages from the kids’ schools, bills, appointment reminders, maps and directions, instructions, ingredients on food packages, social media, music scores, and of course, fun books and articles.

I can only imagine what it would mean not to be able to read. But I do have one example.

An example: I’m functionally illiterate in Thai

A coupon in Thai advertising something about bottled water. There's a price and a code.
A e-coupon from Lotus’s. The title says “drinking water promotion.” I think it says free delivery and you can use the code to get 130 baht off…

I’m functionally illiterate in Thai. I can read some words veeeeeerrryyyy slowly and only with much effort and concentration. Reading a menu or a coupon is about the limit of what I can handle. Reading Thai is not fun.

And because I’m functionally illiterate, I can’t do much in the Thai system.

In hospitals, I’m at the mercy of my doctor (or would be, if they didn’t have top-notch foreigner-friendly English services—an example of the power of English…but that’s a topic for another post). I can’t read the test reports or medication instructions or the itemized list on my bill.

I waste money because I can’t read all the promotional messages from Grab (a service similar to Uber), my supermarket, cinemas, credit cards, coffee chain, etc.

Even trying to stay within the law (immigration law, especially!), I have to get information from my English-speaking family and FB groups to get up-to-date information on how to renew my visa, get re-entry permits, work, etc.

Should I get into trouble with the law (parking ticket in the mail…), I’d be utterly helpless. I wouldn’t know what my rights were or who I’m entitled to call.

(And I’m still privileged because I have my Thai family connections to help me out in any situation.)

Plain language and governments

Cathy Basterfield points out that for people with low literacy skills, plain language may still be too difficult (check out the difference between plain language and Easy English). Still, plain language will help more people access written information.

Governments such as the UK (for their portal GOV.UK) and US require plain English, so people can use and access the information they need and exercise their rights.

The US Plain Writing Act of 2010 explicitly states that plain language is needed

to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public

Public Law 111 – 274 – Plain Writing Act of 2010

Both the Australian government and the European Commission official style manuals are based on plain language (the EU “How to Write Clearly” booklet is available in 24 languages).

It was also evident at Clear Writing for Europe 2021 that European plain language initiatives were driven to make governments transparent and accountable to their people.

To try to sum up…

So plain language is a civil right because it helps the people—regardless of their education, income, legal status, language, disability, or any other factor—get the information they need and exercise their rights.

It means power isn’t held by a small group of elites (like lawyers, doctors, government officials, academics); it brings it back to the people.

The rights of the reader

I thought this was interesting too: the rights of the reader 🙂

Part of the poster for The Rights of the Reader, by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

There are 10 rights, but here are the top three:

  1. The right not to read.
  2. The right to skip.
  3. The right not to finish a book.

It’s a good reminder that the readers don’t have to read anything. And they certainly won’t if they see it’s too difficult.


I haven’t read it but the following book was recommended at the Clear Writing for Europe 2021 conference:

And here also are two wonderful TED talks

Sandra Fisher-Martins at TEDxO’Porto, March 2011. (It’s in Portugese but transcripts are available in 14 languages.)
Deborah Bosley at TEDxCharlotte. Not sure of the event date; the video is from 2015.

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Cover image by Holger Langmaier from Pixabay

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