Sunday, 6 November 2011

Write as if you were writing it for your Grandma - tips on simplifying legal language.

In a recent talk "The right to understand" for TED Sandra Fisher-Martins, translator and language-activist, made some interesting remarks about the complexity of language used in documents (legal, medical etc.) and how we could simplify it (btw, she also gives astounding statistics on literacy rates in Portugal). She argues for a civic movement, consumers becoming more demanding as to what is not only their daily need, but also a civic right: the right to understand.

"Next time you're handed a document you don't get, demand to understand. Put pride to one side for a bit and ask until it's all clear."

She also argues for drafters of these documents to write them in a way that general public would understand and not only the drafters themselves. After all, as Einstein once mentioned:

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough".

So how do you simplify the language? She advises to write the documents as if you were writing it for your grandmother, without patronizing her and with respect. You use three techniques to do it:

"First of all, you start with what's most important. Grandma is busy. She's not going to read three full pages just to get to the main idea. (...) Second, use short sentences. Because Grandma. like any of us, if the sentences are too long, by the time she gets to the end, she won't remember the beginning. Finally, the third: use simple words - those that Grandma already knows."

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