Professionalizing plain language

2: Can we certify plain language practitioners and create an institute?

(a) Certification

The experience of psychotherapy

The current proposals are reminiscent of those made in the UK in the 1980s to set up a central register of certified psychotherapists. We can learn from that experience.

Psychotherapy is based on a considerable body of psychoanalytical and psychodynamic theory. In the 1980s there were 3 established training organisations, in Freudian, Jungian, and Kleinian analysis and psychotherapy. But each had its own theoretical base and was separate and independent; there was no overall control. Meanwhile, many alternative therapies were becoming popular and their practitioners were seeking professional status as psychotherapists. There was also concern that anyone could call themselves a psychotherapist, even if they had no training or experience.

The enterprise soon became bogged down. Some aspects of the different theories and methods were incompatible. And there were difficulties in deciding which therapies to include, and how widely differing therapies were to be subject to the same regulatory body. How were uniform standards to be set? Was registration to be voluntary or compulsory? How was the governing body to be funded? And how was it to be constituted? Thirty years later they are still talking.

The difficulties for plain language

We don't have the disadvantage of the Freudian-Jungian-Kleinian split but the original concept of "plain writing" — a writer's or sub-editor's job — has become increasingly sophisticated. It now incorporates a wide range of quite different disciplines. Chapter 4 of the Options paper lists 50 relevant research fields.

Established professions(a) (as defined in part 1) manage by separating specialisms, with general practitioners able to draw on specialists. But there is a general basic training which all have undertaken.

That does not apply to plain language practitioners, whose training might have been in writing, editing, linguistics, document design, teaching, business management, or elsewhere among those 50 disciplines. Or they might have had no training: anyone can call themselves a plain language expert.

The plain language movement has two more layers of complication not experienced by the psychotherapists:

And as a group we have incompatible aims. Some of us want to enjoy the "niche market" as an indispensable adjunct to other businesses and to governments; others want to make themselves redundant by teaching the world to write well.

The complex problems involved in creating a system to certify practitioners of such a hotchpotch of disciplines and practices is acknowledged in the Options chapter on certification, where voluntary registration is considered as a possible option. But what would be the value of such a list?

A form of voluntary self-registration is already offered by the Center for Plain Language (on payment of $250) but this is neither mentioned nor evaluated in the paper. I touch on it again in part 3.

(b) Setting up an institute

An institute of what?

In my post What is plain language — when there's more than one egg on the wall? I pointed to some of the difficulties in agreeing what we are talking about and I suggested that plain language might not be the most useful category by which we could define ourselves. In reaching that position I wrote:

Those of us working on the IPLWG's Options discussion paper couldn't even agree on the definition of plain language, and I withdrew from the project when I heard that the position that I shared with others was to be suppressed in order to avoid controversy.

And the "definition" as presented in the current paper is not even a definition. Moreover, as a contributor to PLAIN's listserve has already suggested, a definition consisting of a 43-word sentence is not the best example of plain writing.

Who will take seriously a professional institute for so ill-defined a "discipline"?

How much is there to do?

The Options paper raises many difficult questions. The thorough and thoughtful Standards and Certification chapters, which concentrate on what are surely the fundamental concerns behind the project, ask many of them, and the fact that after 2½ years' work they offer few answers, even tentatively, reflects the enormity of the project.

Who will do the work?

In August 2010 — which is the latest information I have — Clarity's membership had fallen from about 1,140 three years before to about 700, of whom not a few long-term professional(a) members were disinclined to renew their subscriptions. The then president was very keen to replace the old-timers with "new active young members" who would be attracted by tweeting and blogging and could be recruited to a range of comparatively undemanding new roles (like "assistant editor" and "social networking manager"). Nine months later, neither the journal nor the website has announced any new appointments, and the website itself shows evidence of neglect.

PLAIN, (according to its website) has only 183 members.

The Center for Plain Language's website does not disclose its membership but the description of membership benefits suggests that "member" is only a courtesy title: basic membership is a US$100 subscription to receive emailed newsletters. The Center also calls for volunteer helpers.

With this modest recruitment base, can we realistically expect to create a multinational professional organisation from nothing? Have any of the 3 backing organisations thought to find out how much time their members would be able and willing to devote, or to ask previously unresponsive members why they are reluctant to serve?

There seems to have been little interest in the project (as I revise this paragraph on 26 June 2011). More than 2 months after the Options paper was first published (on 18 April) it has not been mentioned on Clarity's almost unused forum or on CPL's blog; and it took a significant effort by PLAIN's committee to produce a few comments on its listserve. No doubt some loyal enthusiasm was generated at PLAIN's conference earlier this month but we still await a report. Responses to the original version of this paper suggest these reasons for indifference (or in some cases hostility):

Some of these responses have been expressed privately by members of PLAIN or Clarity; some in a more lively LinkedIn debate among independent plainers whose views had not been sought by those promoting the scheme. (Neil James has since invited anyone interested to send their comments on the Options paper to by 12 September 2011.)

What is the institute for?

Wikipedia's entry on "institute" reads:

An institute is a permanent organizational body created for a certain purpose. Often it is a research organization (research institution) created to do research on specific topics. An institute can also be a professional body.

In some countries institutes can be part of a university or other institution of higher education, either as a group of departments or an autonomous educational institution without a classic full university status such as a University Institute. See Institute of Technology.

The word comes from the Latin word institutum meaning facility or habit; from instituere meaning build, create, raise or educate.

In some countries, such as South Korea and Japan, private schools are sometimes called institutes, rather than schools.

In the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man the title "Institute'" is a protected word and companies or other organisations may only use that word if they are "organisations which are carrying out research at the highest level or to professional bodies of the highest standing". Furthermore, if a company is carrying on a business under a different name to the company name, that business name must comply with the Business Names Act. Use of the title 'Institute' requires approval from the Secretary of State. Failure to seek approval is a criminal offence.

The vague generality of the first sentence seems to be over-ridden by the rest, especially in our context and to me as a British-English speaker. I have always understood the project as being to set up — if possible — a professional body with educational and research functions. And this is how it was presented in the draft of the current paper (presented at PLAIN's 2009 conference), where the suggested timetable offered 8 consecutive annual stages:

Stages 1 and 2 were to plan "a new organisation".

Stage 3 (ending in 2012) was to "Proceed with the set up … of an International Plain Language Institute …".

Stages 4 to 8 involved "whichever of the activities stage one determined to be part of the organisation's scope", starting with "the first plain language standard to be administered by the new institute" and moving on first to training and then to certification. Oddly, "advocacy for" plain language (the easy bit, which — if they mean "promoting" — we've been doing for 30 years) was to be deferred until stage 7 and research (which should have informed the earlier stages) was to be left until the end.

(Incidentally, although "advocating for" is longer and clumsier than "promoting" its meaning is unhelpfully narrower. It seems to be the new buzz-phrase. Isn't this the sort of writing that we're supposed to be campaigning against?)

But the revised version of that chapter as just published recommends instead merely "formalising an international federation of existing organisations", consisting (at least to begin with) of Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center for Plain Language. The fallback recommendation is to continue with the existing working group, as set up and run by Neil James, Clarity, PLAIN, and CPL.

This fundamental change has not been formally announced, and one would not guess it from the questions Dr James raised in his preamble (which I quoted at the beginning of part 1 and from which I took the heading Can we certify plain language practitioners and create an institute?). It appears in the text on p.54 of Clarity 64. On p.55 this "institution [not ‘Institute’ — MA] should have a small organisational membership at the outset, but consider provision for expanded membership in the future". The "small membership" is to consist of Clarity, PLAIN, and CPL.

Why this is undemocratic and a threat to the independence of plain language practitioners I will deal with in part 3 (Should we do it?). But it is necessary to mention it here because:

Who will pay for it?

Until these questions are satisfactorily answered, and there is a coherent "business" plan, no sensible backer will want to contribute significantly to the substantial (but so far unestimated) sums that will be needed.

Several local institutes offering plain language services (but not certification, and with no ambition to control practitioners) have briefly flourished, only to close when — despite their professional success — their funding was withdrawn. Notable examples, all run by prominent Clarity members, were:

The rise and fall of these and similar bodies should be researched before we follow them into oblivion.

Websites checked 6 June and (in part) 26 June 2011.

I am grateful to my wife Jan for the comparison with psychotherapy.


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