The ISO plain language standard: For most languages and cultures, and for all sectors
As a language professional, you know how important it is to write in plain language. You might even be required to use plain language. But does everyone mean the same thing when they use that term?
What are the different focuses of plain language?
You’ve probably seen how people focus on different aspects when talking about plain language. You might have been caught in the middle of people’s disagreements about what makes a document plain. For example, people will often focus on one or more of these items:
- short words
- no jargon
- passive voice
- readability scores (see my blog post: Readability formulas, programs and tools: Do they work for plain language? (opens in new tab))
Too often people talking about plain language ignore the importance of good headings, design, graphics and the order in which a writer presents ideas to their readers.
Language professionals have not had a universally agreed-upon standard for creating plain language documents or for judging what is plain. This has made it difficult for people writing and designing documents to assess the quality of their processes or products.
The plain language standard (opens in new tab) developed through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) changes all of this by providing a clear understanding of what plain language is and how you can achieve it.
How was the standard created?
The standard is based on an internationally agreed-upon definition of plain language. The definition that appears in the plain language standard is as follows:
communication in which wording, structure and design are so clear that intended readers can easily
- find what they need,
- understand what they find, and
- use that information.
The standard was developed by an international committee of plain language experts. It’s based on empirical evidence, and it was created using ISO’s consensus model (opens in new tab) (for a definition of “consensus,” see section 3.2). Each of these factors led to a standard that is accepted around the world.
For the first time, we have a standard that tells people what plain language is and how to create plain language documents.
Is it language neutral?
The standard is language neutral. The principles and techniques in it are not related to any particular language.
Instead, these four principles in the standard give details on what methods can be used to write a plain language document:
- Readers get what they need (relevant)
- Readers can easily find what they need (findable)
- Readers can easily understand what they find (understandable)
- Readers can easily use the information (usable)
The experts who wrote the standard come from 25 countries. Between them, those experts speak 19 languages and work in a wide range of roles and organizations. The experts worked hard to make sure every sentence in the standard works in their language.
Because of this, the standard can be adopted in most, if not all, languages and cultures, and all sectors. It’s versatile and easy to use.
Is it a style guide?
It’s important to note that the standard is not a style guide. It won’t tell you what words to use or anything else that might be in your organization’s guidance documents. It complements existing guides and practices. The standard is a valuable addition to language professionals’ tool kits.
How do you get a copy?
ISO standards have to be purchased. The Standards Council of Canada provides reasons to explain why ISO standards are not free (opens in new tab), including the offsetting of costs and the maintaining of neutral standards.
You can buy a copy of the standard through a country’s standard-setting body, or you can buy it directly from the ISO website (opens in new tab). If you are buying it for a Canadian workplace or school, there may be licensing arrangements that you can enter into. You can contact the Standards Council of Canada to find out more about the copyright on ISO standards (opens in new tab).
You can be at the forefront of this change, along with other plain language practitioners. Join us in using and promoting the standard.
The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.
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