Let’s speak plainly, shall we?

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In 2013, I was sent a contract so inexplicable that I couldn’t sign it.

I chased the company concerned for an explanation that they were largely unable to provide; in fact, it seemed that they didn’t really understand it either. But they insisted that it was perfectly in line with the Consumer Protection Act, because their ‘lawyers looked at it’. 


The CPA says:

A notice, document or visual representation is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice, document or visual representation is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services, could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the document without undue effort…*

* This is not the most easily comprehensible sentence in the world, either.

I had to read the bloody contract twice, email the rude salesperson three or four times with questions and then speak to a manager over the phone to understand what I was committing myself to.

That’s “undue effort” if ever I’ve heard of it.

Companies: listen up. 

Plain language means that the average Joe, not me with a postgrad degree and the ability to speed-read, should be able to understand every word of your fine print. It’s a legal imperative. So stop being deliberately obtuse.

Gone are the days when you could con your poor ‘customers’ into signing anything because there was too much fine print, it was too small and it made no sense anyway. So, here’s some help:

  • Yes, your lawyers can – and should – devise your contracts. But most lawyers are actually trained not to use plain language. It’s not lawyerly. So get a language expert in to review the contract. Then get the lawyers to fight with meet with the expert, and let them hash it out. There is a happy medium to be found here. 
  • Use the simplest, shortest words you can (‘start’ instead of ‘commence’, ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’), with lots of real-world examples: ‘This means…’, ‘Let’s say that…’, ‘For example…’
  • Speak to the customer as ‘you’. Not ‘the Customer’. Speak about your company as ‘ABC and our associates’ and then ‘us’; not ‘ABC and its officers, directors, employees, or other persons’. We’re all people.
  • Use technical, legal and business jargon sparingly. I know it’s hard. Try. Jargon should be short-hand (used to make things clearer), not a foreign language (used to make people sound smarter than they are).
  • Keep sentences short: 20 words max. Two short ones are better than a long one.
  • Use headings, sub-headings and text boxes to make text appear unintimidating and easily scannable, even if doing so makes it a bit longer. Long is actually fine. As long as it all makes sense.
  • When you have to use definitions, place a glossary and some paragraphs interpreting terms at the end of a document. Your readers can start reading without wading through technical rules first.
Disclaimer: It’s my ethical duty to caution you against re-writing legal clauses that you don’t understand, because you run the risk of over-simplifying the language and inadequately covering risks. It’s not worth it. Rather work with a legal mind to cover your company’s a$$.

In practice

Instead of…

The member will be required to sign an agreement and debit order form permitting the administrators to raise a monthly debit for the member portion of the contributions and surcharges, when applicable.

Say this…

You’ll need to sign an agreement and a debit order form that allows us to take money from your account every month to cover your contributions to the [medical scheme]. We may also need to deduct small amounts of money for extras that arise, which we’ll discuss with you each time. 

Yes, it may take time, effort and moolla to get these contracts right.

But only the first time. And then it’s done.

And you have wonderful documents that people understand.

Tiffany Markman gives good advice on words and writing. Want some?

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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