Ever wondered what the ISO Plain Language Standard is all about? Here are answers to some of the most Frequently Asked Questions.
Why does there have to be an international Standard on Plain Language?
International Plain Language experts needed a Standard to achieve consistency in the:
- definition of Plain Language
- process to achieve Plain Language, and
- principles and guidelines for authors and organisations.
What is an ISO Standard?
The International Organization for Standardization (or the ISO) develops and publishes international standards. ISO standards have credibility for the following reasons:
- The ISO started its work in 1947. They have published over 24 500 standards covering most aspects of technology, management, and manufacturing.
- Many countries around the world have chosen to adopt ISO standards instead of creating their own standards.
- South Africa’s national standards body, the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), represents South Africa in the ISO. Many of our country’s national standards (called SANS) are adopted ISO standards.
What does the ISO Plain Language Standard say?
The ISO published the first international Standard for Plain Language in June 2023. The Standard is based on the international definition of Plain Language that was adopted by the International Plain Language Federation (IPLF) in 2014.
The definition says:
“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily:
- find what they need,
- understand what they find, and
- use that information.”
The Standard consists of four principles (derived from the definition above) and some guidelines. The four Plain Language principles do not stand alone. They work together to describe a content development process that delivers a specific user experience. For a user, a document would be usable (Principle 4) if the information in it is relevant (Principle 1), findable (Principle 2) and understandable (Principle 3).
The Standard also details how the principles should be interpreted and applied in practice.
To view the details of the Standard, you or your organisation have to buy the Standard. You can buy the Standard from the ISO or SABS below:
Who can use the Standard and how?
The Standard’s principles and guidelines can be applied to any field or industry.
Individuals and organisations can use the Standard to create communication that is relevant, findable, understandable, and usable, i.e., to create a specific user experience. Apply the principles and guidelines in your organisation’s content development process.
Educational or industry organisations to explore how one could verify that individuals or organisations indeed follow the Standard and have the competence to apply the principles and guidelines of the Standard.
Government and regulators to monitor and evaluate compliance with Plain Language legislation and regulations.
Note: Because the Standard is a guidance standard, anyone can follow the Standard. This would mean that you follow the principles and guidelines set out in the Standard. You cannot say that you, or your organisation or government, comply with or certify a process/document against any part of the Standard.
Where can I buy the Standard? How much does it cost?
The Standard is available on the ISO store at https://www.iso.org/standard/78907.html
At the time of publishing this guide, the Standard cost ±R1700. The SABS confirmed that in South Africa, you only need one copy per legal entity (i.e., per individual or registered organisation). That means that anyone in the organisation can use the Standard for the organisation. You are not allowed to share a copy of the Standard with anyone outside of the organisation.
For more information on the ISO’s strict copyright rules, visit https://www.iso.org/copyright.html#:~:text=The%20copyright%20ownership%20of%20ISO,ISO%20member%20in%20your%20country
How can I get dedicated training and obtain a certificate or specialisation in Plain Language?
The IPLF’s certification committee is exploring different options for certifying individuals and organizations. This includes a standardised training module on the ISO Plain Language Standard.
Check back in the future for updates.
As an editor, how might the new Standard change what I do?
Before we answer this question, there are two important things you need to know about Plain Language:
- Plain Language is not a quality assurance step but is embedded throughout the content development process.
- Plain Language is also not “simple language”. See the question above entitled What does the ISO Plain Language Standard say? for the definition of Plain Language as used in the Standard.
If you, therefore, want to follow the ISO Plain Language Standard as an editor, you need to ensure you work with a multidisciplinary team to deliver Plain Language to clients. The team needs experience in all four principles, which include a combination of the following functional skills:
- Stakeholder mapping and engagement
- Research (communication, sociolinguistics, behavioural linguistics)
- Information design
- UX writing, technical writing, using plain language writing techniques, and
- User testing (UX).
We have launched various online courses to teach and coach Plain Language practitioners on how to implement Plain Language within an organisation. See our Training Hub for more details.
How does the Standard relate to or differ from controlled language standards/proposals, such as Ogden's Basic English?
The guidelines in controlled language standards, such as Ogden’s Basic English, focus only on one aspect of the ISO Plain Language Standard, namely understandability (Principle 3: Information is easy to find). The question above entitled What does the ISO Plain Language Standard say? explains how the four principles of the Standard work together — they do not stand alone.
How can the Standard be applied to academic writing? How can medical writers and editors incorporate the Standard in the creation of clinical trial documentation?
The principles and guidelines can be applied to any field and industry.
The working group that developed the ISO standard is working on further parts to the Standard, including:
- legal drafting (part 2 of the Standard)
- science writing
- health communication, and
Each of these parts is a work in progress.
According to the ISO Plain Language Standard: A piece of communication is in Plain Language if, and only if, its information is relevant, findable, understandable, and usable for the reader.
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A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.