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Plain Language and the perception of intelligence

When people read plain language, do they think a smart, or a dumb person wrote it? Here's what the research says.

We already know many people are lexiphanic. That means they think "more words and bigger words are better." In part, those nasty assumptions persist in society because we still don't include and teach basic plain language in most of our schools.

Yes, there's a Federal Plain Language Law, Federal Plain Language Guidelines and an FAA Plain Language Tool Kit (PDF). But if people don't know about and use these things, they'll continue to spew their "prestige vernacular" when they communicate. What's the consequence when businesses, governments and people use words their readers don't understand?

Plenty of research proves that when we use plain language, we save time, money and do a much better job protecting profits, people's civil rights and lives. (PDF) Does research also tell us what readers think about the intelligence and skill of writers who use plain language?

In the study "Legalise vs. Plain English: An Empirical Study of Persuasion and Credibility with Attorneys," a large group of judges and research attorneys were given two versions of a document. One was written in plain language and the other used typical, complex legal jargon. By a wide margin, the judges and attorneys rated the plain language version as more effective and "written by someone from a more prestigious law firm."


When you use plain language, you'll be "clearing-up," not "dumbing-down" your words and people will think you're smarter and more successful when you do.

For questions or comments, or if you want free, custom training for your staff to put your policies, technical reports, correspondence or other documents into plain language, please contact:

Dr. Bruce V. Corsino
FAA Plain Language Program Manager
Phone: 202-267-4749

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