When confronted with financial, medical, legal and public documents that influence your life, you want them to be comprehensible and clear. If such documents are written in plain language, it would be so much easier to read and understand them and to then make informed decisions.
This is the opinion of Dr Annie Burger, who received her PhD in Afrikaans and Dutch on Monday 27 March 2023 at one of Stellenbosch University's (SU) March graduation ceremonies. The title of her thesis was “The link between contextual and outer textual factors and the efficient application of plain language".
For her PhD, Burger, a postdoctoral research fellow in SU's Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, studied the characteristics of readers (e.g. income, qualification level, home language, and the extent to which they felt the documents provide useful information), as well as the context (financial, medical and legal contexts) of plain language documents.
She analysed existing plain language documents such as brochures about the Consumer Protection Act, an information sheet on how to care for a baby, as well as a financial form. She also used online questionnaires completed by respondents to gather data.
Burger points out that plain language is prescribed by South African legislation (such as the Consumer Protection Act) for public documents to ensure that the target reading group is considered.
“It is also generally used in financial, medical and legal contexts, for instance in forms to be completed by clients, information sheets about readers' rights, as well as in documents explaining medical procedures to patients.
“Unfortunately, the vocabulary and style of complex documents often make them inaccessible for target reading groups. Plain language can help them to read and understand these documents and thereby gain access to important information. Therefore, the focus has to be on the target reading group and the information they have to obtain from the document."
Burger says the results of her study show a link between the context in which a plain language document is situated, how useful and understandable it is and how readers experience it.
“Due to the complex nature of financial and legal contexts, respondents found it difficult to understand the plain language documents and to experience it in a positive manner. On the other hand, they found plain language documents in the medical context easier to understand and they also had a more positive attitude towards these documents."
A relationship also exists between readers' qualification level, their home language, how engaged they feel with the documents and their experience of the documents, she says.
“The higher their qualification level, the worse their experience of plain language documents was. Afrikaans-speaking respondents had a better experience with the documents than speakers of other home languages. Respondents' experience of the documents improved when they felt they provided information that they can use."
According to Burger a good plain language document is therefore a document with which the target audience can engage and from which they can gain the information they need.
She says her research can help document designers to better understand the nature of plain language, to look at the characteristics of the context of plain language documents as well as the characteristics of the readers of plain language when plain language documents are created.
“It will also help them to make plain language documents understandable and useful and to improve the readers' experience of them."
Burger stresses that document designers should test their own documents with readers. “Testing is extremely important when creating a document. Each reader group is different and only testing can determine which aspects of the document work and which don't."
Photo: Dr Annie Burger at the graduation ceremony. Photographer: Stefan Els