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Plain Language

The Office of Parliamentary Counsel has been active in encouraging the use of plain language in legislation and in developing and using plain language techniques.

In addition to OPC’s participation in major plain language projects such as the Tax Law Improvement Project and the Corporate Law Economic Reform Program, we have incorporated plain language drafting into all of our work. We have also reviewed the effectiveness of some of the techniques we have introduced. The survey results are now available.

We prefer to use the term “plain language” rather than “plain English” because we believe that it covers a wider range of techniques and practices.

In a paper given to the Emerging Trends in Legislative Drafting Conference in Dublin in 2000, Professor Ruth Sullivan of the University of Ottawa gave the following description of plain language. We believe that it is an accurate description of the approach taken by OPC drafters.

“Plain language drafting refers to a range of techniques designed to create legislation that is readable and easy to use by the relevant audience(s) for that legislation.

At the level of vocabulary, plain language drafters try to use words and expressions that are familiar to everyone. Although technical language is sometimes necessary to achieve an acceptable level of precision, unnecessary jargon and gratuitous obscurity are eliminated.

At the level of syntax, plain language drafters try to create sentence patterns that are easy for the average person to process. According to the experts, such sentences tend to be short, avoid embedding, and branch to the right. They rely on verbs rather than nouns, the active rather than the passive voice, and positive rather than negative formulations to state the intended law.

At the level of structure, plain language drafters try to organise statutes in a clear and meaningful way. The sequencing of provisions is based on chronological order, logical order, order of importance or some other principle or combination of principles that is likely to make sense to the reader. Equally important, the structure of the statute is clearly revealed to the reader through use of headings and sub-headings, marginal notes, transitions, tables of contents, summaries and the like.

Plain language drafters also draw on the research and insights of experts in document design. They pay as much attention to fonts and white space as they do to choice of words. They try to devise methods of presenting material visually that will assist the reader to use the statute book effectively, and with minimum effort.

Finally, plain language drafters try to provide information that will help readers to interpret the text. Such information typically takes the form of purpose statements, explanatory notes, examples, summaries, overviews and the like. The less familiar a reader is with legislation and its application by official interpreters courts, tribunals and administrators, the greater is the need for context of this sort.”


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