What do people think about the way government talks? Attitudes to plain language in official communication
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When official publications supposed to inform the public do not do their job well the consequences can be serious, impacting for example on someone’s income because they did not know they were entitled to benefits. Campaigners argue that official communication should be written in plain language to make it more understandable. This seems to be largely accepted by Government and yet plain language has not become everyday practice. The public conversation about plain language invokes a range of ideas about what plain language signifies, suggesting that there may be more complex reasons for the maintenance of non-plain communication than simply laziness of the writers. For spoken language, language attitude studies have been used to provide empirical evidence of the beliefs people have about different language varieties, drawing on these for explanations as to why languages change or are maintained. Drawing on the language attitudes field, a matched-guise study of plain language was therefore carried out to consider if readers and writers of official communication had particular attitudes towards plain and non-plain language in official communication. Participants were found to judge organisations producing plain texts to be less professional and less credible than those producing plain texts, but more approachable and more down-to-earth, with values at or approaching statistical significance. It is suggested that non-plain official communication continues to be produced because it is the prestige variety. Factors that affect peoples’ attitudes to plain language are also discussed, including the content of official information, characteristics of participants, and what people expect from language in this very particular context.