Part of: Clear language
Legal, medical and financial terms
Last updated: 25 February, 2020
Following this helps people with:
time pressures: simply written content is quicker to scan
stress: when anxious it's difficult to understand complex text
multi-tasking: complex text is harder to instantly comprehend
low literacy: complex vocabulary and terms will not be known
cognitive impairments: simple explanations take less cognitive load
visual impairments: clear content can reduce eye strain
motor impairments: shorter, plain content requires less scrolling
non-fluency: plain language is easily to comprehend
The legal, financial and medical professions are known for complex terminology. This is not necessary and confuses people.
Health: People need to understand doctors' letters and consultant reports easily. They need to be able to comprehend online information about health.
Finances: Many people do not understand financial terms. This causes problems. Complex terminology describing conceptual arrangements is not helpful.
Law: Judges created a set of tools to decide what legal writers intended: Statutory Interpretation. But analyses can contradict each other. Plain English makes meaning clearer from the start.
If information on your website is unclear your organisation could be taken to court and lose, even if content is approved by your legal department.
When you refer to a law, or part of it, explain what that law is at the point of user need. Do not only refer to it in a reference section or appendix.
Positioned at the top of a form, not hidden away in references section:
"We collect personal information on this form under section 26 the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, because it concerns our programs and activities (c), and it is necessary for planning and evaluating our programs and activities(e)."
"Direct sales contract: exemptions from application of the Act
5 (1) This section describes direct sellers that are, and circumstances in which direct sellers are, exempt from the application of sections 19 to 22 (required contents, direct sales contracts, direct sales contract: cancellation, credit agreement respecting direct sales contract) of the Act."
Users of the information might be in shock or anxious, which reduces cognition.
Medical terms are unlikely to be understood by your readers. It's similar to assuming they would know a word in a foreign language. Follow the word or phrase with a plain English explanation.
Dealing with financial issues can be stressful, which means your audience will have less cognitive capability available. Write information so that it is easy for them to understand.
Avoid using financial jargon. Acronyms and pseudonyms may make sense internally, but people using your services may not understand them.
A tracker or shared ownership mortgage is easier to understand if you give examples.
This is important for credit arrangements where there is an initial interest rate that may change.
'Writing content for everyone', R. Strachan, UK Government Digital Service blog, 2016
'Department of Health Stakeholder Report: 2012', research by Ipsos MORI, 2012
'Connecting with audiences. An evidence-based language sourcebook', Department of Health and Linguistic Landscapes, 2010, 2014
Guide to medical information from Plain English Campaign.
Guidance on writing letters to outpatients from Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.
'Clarity is king – the evidence that reveals the desperate need to re-think the way we write' GDS blog, Mark Morris, 2014
NHS content style guide beta, January 2019
'Criteria and ingredients for successful patient information', Wright, P., Journal of Audiovisual Media in Medicine, 26.1, pages 6 to10, 2003
A to Z of financial terms (PDF 87KB) from Plain English Campaign.
Plain English guide to financial term (PDF 686KB) from National Adult Literacy Agency, Ireland, January 2009
'Joseph Kimble—No, the law does not (normally) require legalese' Editing Goes Global, 2015. Professor Joseph Kimble discusses the "psuedo-precision of legalese".
Plain language: the underlying research, Karen Schriver slide presentation, pages 29 to 35, 2012. Online PDF.
'The public speaks: an empirical study of legal communication', Christopher Trudeau, study includes solicitor case studies, 2017
'Legislative language and judicial politics: The effects of changing parliamentary language on UK immigration disputes', Williams, M., 2017. Locked. Related eBook, preview chapter 1: 'How language works in politics: The impact of vague legislation on policy', Williams, M., 2018
'How Parliament’s failure to clearly articulate immigration policy forces judges to take control', Matthew Williams 'Legislative language and judicial politics' 2017 summarised in London School of Economics blog post
'I fought the law and the users won: delivering online voter registration', Peter Herlihy, UK Government Digital Service blog, 2014
Richmond vs HRA Richmond pharmaceutical company took the Health Regulatory Authority to court because the website was confusing. A high court judge decided the site was 'unlawful' and ruled against the government. The site was cleared through a legal department. This set a precedent in the UK. You can still be sued even with all the legal language there, if the information is not clear.
Plain English Campaign believes legalese is unnecessary and does not do what it was intended to. "The argument that clarity should be sacrificed for a document to be comprehensive does not stand up."