Friday, April 15, 2005

Why plain English?

In December 2004, I was hired to revise several transactional documents into plain English. The client was a large, build-on-your-lot home-construction company, which hired me to revise these home-construction documents into plain English:
  • home construction contract
  • home construction contract with financing
  • deed of trust
  • promissory note
  • arbitration agreement

Why would a company do such a thing? The original documents were working, the documents were not causing the company any major problems, and the project cost time and money. So why do it? I asked the lawyer I was working with. Here's what he said.

The main reason for the change was a change in management; the new management believed that the old documents were not up to industry standards and were hurting sales because they were so hard to read and understand.

He gave other reasons, too:
  • Sometimes the arbitrators chosen to resolve disputes with customers are not lawyers; the plain English documents would help ensure that the arbitrators understood what the company's documents really said.

  • The sales staff out there selling the homes needs to be able read and understand the documents.

  • Regulators and licensing bodies of many types need to read and understand the documents on occasion; the plain English documents would make it easier to show the regulators and licensing bodies what the company was doing or planning to do.

  • The Better Business Bureau would be better able to understand the plain English documents. When customers complain to the BBB, it’s nice if the BBB can read and understand the documents

  • New management also thought that in general, everyone connected to the business should be able to read and understand the documents.

Plain English happens. And it's not always pushed along by zealots, like me, or by government mandate (as with state plain English laws or the SEC plain-language rules). Sometimes companies see its value. For more on this topic, see Joseph Kimble, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, 6 Scribes J. Leg. Writing 1 (1996–1997). This piece proves that plain English is worth it in dollars and cents.

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