Obscurité totale

Posted on July 24, 2023

“You have a writing assignment due for next week.” There was a collective moan of disappointment across my fifth grade classroom, but my mind was already racing through possible topics. I loved writing assignments!

Our French teacher, Mr. Ouellette, wanted us to elevate and hone our writing skills. He directed us to go above and beyond and replace plain words we used every day with more worldly ones. He wrote a few examples on the board—the rarer the word, the better. I gathered my French dictionary and my dictionary of antonyms and synonyms. I sharpened my pencil and got to work with my reference material sprawled across the kitchen table. I confidently handed in my assignment.

A few weeks later, Mr. Ouellette announced that he had reviewed our assignments and that there was one in particular he wanted to read to the class. He put on his glasses, cleared his throat, and started to read. I instantly recognized my writing. I was flattered that he thought my work was good enough to share with the class; but at the same time, I’m an introvert, and I could feel my face turning crimson red. It only got worse.

Amongst the many synonyms I’d looked up was the term obscurité totale (total darkness or complete obscurity), which I’d inserted somewhere in my paper. I remember that term for two reasons: my teacher put a lot of emphasis on it, and it also gave birth to my new nickname. From that day up until I graduated high school, humorous classmates would periodically call me “Obscurité totale”!

My introduction to plain language

Fast-forward many decades: I began my career at Service Canada as a benefits officer. I witnessed first-hand how many of my clients felt intimidated and confused by governmental correspondence, and I often found myself explaining processes, forms, letters and legislation in plain language.

I’m now part of the Content Chapter for the Service Experience Delivery and Design (SEDD) workstream within the Benefits Delivery Modernization Programme. I’m learning techniques on how to review and create online content for the public. The use of lengthy, sophisticated, rare words is not only frowned upon but downright condemned. I'm sure my Grade 5 teacher would be disappointed.

The importance of plain language and how I use it

According to the International Dyslexia Association (opens in new tab), 15% to 20% of the population has a language-based learning disability. According to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (opens in new tab), nearly half of adult Canadians have literacy challenges. In fact, many Canadians struggle with completing ordinary tasks such as filling out forms or reading a newspaper article. The lowest-scoring groups include not only new Canadians with a native language other than English or French but also English and French speakers born in Canada! This is why public-facing content must be at a reading level of Grade 8 or lower.

That’s where my team comes in. As SEDD creates and improves digital products to better serve Canadians, one of my team’s mandates is to review and write content in plain language. To prevent readers from feeling overwhelmed, we make critical information accessible and easy to read for everyone. We do this by:

  • using common and well-known terms
  • using words with two syllables or less
  • writing shorter sentences and paragraphs
  • eliminating acronyms, initialisms, jargon, idioms and expressions
  • using bullet points to break up blocks of words and sentences

In addition to using these techniques, we use readability tools to evaluate English and French content. Finally, we keep the tone informal and informative but also professional. It’s a balancing act that’s worth every effort.

How do we initiate lasting change within an organization as large and diverse as ours? We create legislation.

The summary of the Accessible Canada Act (opens in new tab) describes the Act’s purpose, which is to make Canada a barrier-free country by January 1, 2040. And one of the principles on which the Act rests is that “everyone must be able to participate fully and equally in society.” The future is looking bright!

From obscure to plain and simple

As for me, I still use a synonym dictionary, except it’s now online. Instead of taking simple words and replacing them with more lengthy, complex ones, like I did back in my Grade 5 class, I take those lengthy, complex words and search for shorter, more common words to replace them with. The power of language cannot be underestimated, and I’m sure Mr. Ouellette would appreciate that the time and place for big, obscure words is not in documents intended for the public.


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.

Get to know Marie-Claude Hickey

Marie-Claude Hickey

Marie-Claude Hickey

Marie-Claude was born and raised in New Brunswick. Her sense of adventure has taken her from coast to coast; and in the span of 16 years, she’s lived in Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. She joined the Canada Revenue Agency over 12 years ago and now lives in St. John’s with her husband and two daughters.

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Submitted by Nayan on September 7, 2023, at 14:15

Nice blog!

Submitted by Tom Vradenburg on July 25, 2023, at 8:57

I worked on those International Adult Literacy Survey reports Marie-Claude mentions.
I am not sure that ratcheting everything 'down' to a Grade 8 reading level is the answer: see Gael Spivak's blog posts here on this topic. But the general point is that we, as public servants, can never, ever assume that "it makes sense to me, so it will make sense to them." The only real way to find out what makes sense to your reader is testing with a representative portion of the audience. That's not always feasible; that's why we seem to default to this "make it all Grade 8" position.
There's no easy answer to all this, but our first step, as content writers, is to understand what user experience people say: "You are not your user." We cannot stress this enough.

Submitted by Nadia Helal on August 7, 2023, at 6:04

I didn’t know about the Act to make Canada a barrier-free country by January 1, 2040. The idea that “EVERYONE must be able to participate fully and equally in society” seems improbable, but every tiny step closer towards that goal is worth mentioning. Thanks for sharing your personal and professional experience!

Submitted by Nayan on September 7, 2023, at 14:15

Nice blog!