Professionalizing plain language

1. Introduction

In the preamble to the long-awaited Options paper, now called Strengthening plain language: public benefit and professional practice, to which the latest issue of Clarity is devoted, Neil James asks (on p.3):

Should we establish international standards for plain language and how would that work? Can we certify plain language practitioners and create some kind of institute to do so? Is plain language still a movement focused on its public benefits, or should we drive it towards a profession?

He is right to ask "should we?" and "can we?", especially as the first question seems to have been widely overlooked in the much-hyped enthusiasm for "driving" the project. But he should recast his third question: as a matter of logic, you cannot ask "Is … or should …?"; facts and values are different categories and cannot be weighed in the same scales.

I'll offer my views on "should we?" and "can we?" (in reverse order) in parts 2 and 3 of this article, but we cannot sensibly discuss these questions without first agreeing what we mean by "profession".

1: What is a profession?

Among other meanings, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973 edn) offers:

a. A vocation in which a professed knowledge of some department of learning is used in its application to the affairs of others, or in the practice of an art founded upon it. Applied specifically to the three learned professions of divinity, law, and medicine; also to the military profession.

b. In wider sense: Any calling or occupation by which a person habitually earns his living.

The list of "learned professions" has — surprisingly — not been updated for some centuries, but that is by the way. I'll use the expressions profession(a) and profession(b) to distinguish the two meanings.

Let us by all means become more professional(a). But my concern is that this ambiguity is masking a move away from the learning and the vocational concept of service that are associated with professionalism(a) so that we become a profession(b), with the profit motive emerging from the subordinate place it held in pre-Thatcherite professional(a) practices and becoming the priority.

Clarity in particular has already been affected in this way. As a non-profit campaign established to overturn tradition, Clarity attracted mavericks. When it was founded nearly 30 years ago the idea was radical and the few lawyers who supported it in their practices were thought by the traditionalists to be self-destructive; they certainly didn't do it to advance their careers. But now the need for plain language has been widely accepted as necessary and desirable. Although much resistance remains, plain drafting is being adopted by courts, legislatures, legislative counsel offices, law firms, other professions(a), and the wider business world. Meanwhile, the pioneers have been retiring or dying, and some of those stepping up to take their places are the opposite of pioneers: they have been trained (or have trained themselves) in what has become the new orthodoxy, and they want to perpetuate it. This change has been reinforced by the trend begun by Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan and continued — in Britain at least — by their successors: all the professions(a) are being converted into businesses, with a loss of idealism and the rise of the profit-motive at the expense of service.

The vagueness of the word "professionalism" — even when it is restricted to professionalism(a) — has contributed to the misunderstanding created by the ambiguity. Like "democracy" and "motherhood", it is an abstract word with positive but unspecified connotations: in this case of arduous academic and practical training, of duty to others, of integrity and trust. None of these are implied by professionalism(b) (although of course many professionals(b) are honest, conscientious, and skilful). Which should remind us of what we have all been saying for years: we should use concrete rather than abstract words.

There should be an open debate about which sort of profession — if any — plainers want.

A prominent plainer recently wrote:

I think the schools teach lawyers how to write pretty plainly for their profession [my italics, not his]. There should be more emphasis on the various reading levels of different audiences. They can be more careful in writing texts for clients and the public, but I really doubt if many have the patience or the time to learn how to do that properly.

Maybe we should stop beating up lawyers over this and tell them that plain language is not their profession. If they need to communicate with the public, they should hire us. We are the readability experts who can target a text to reach a certain level of readers.

I disagree, on several counts:

The same questions apply to the other professions. Are they all to employ plain language experts in their communications with their clients or patients?

Making plain writing into a separate profession, rather than a responsibility of all professions, would be a retrograde step, undermining the progress of the last 30 years.

Phil Knight expressed a similar view in emails to the Clarity committee in October 2009, in response to a draft of the Options paper:

[The] paper is flawed because it proceeds from the false assumption that "plain language" constitutes a distinct profession. It does not. Rather, it is a set of ideas, values and ways of behaving in relation to a particular kind of work, and they are applicable across all professions….

Most of our members are already subject to the jurisdiction of a professional body, and as such, have to comply with well developed and comprehensive compliance schemes. I doubt they would welcome another, and I certainly do not wish to recommend that one be imposed upon them.

I am concerned that in the drive to establish plain language as a profession insufficient thought has been given to what is meant by "profession", and that this question should be more thoroughly examined before we decide whether to take the project further.


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