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Communication
Journal of Business
DOI: 10.1177/002194369903600402
1999; 36; 335 Journal of Business Communication
Nittaya Campbell
How New Zealand Consumers Respond to Plain English
http://job.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/36/4/335
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335
How New Zealand Consumers
Respond
to
Plain
English
Nittaya Campbell
University of Waikato, Hamilton,
New Zealand
In recent
years
New Zealand has seen an
increasing
awareness
of
the need
for
and the
benefits of providing readily
understandable business and
government
doc-
uments. In this
paper
I
report
a
psycholinguistic study testing
the level
of
con-
sumer
comprehension of
bank contracts and the
effect of using plain English
to
rewrite them. The
plain
versions
encouraged subjects
to read the documents more
carefully
than
they
read the
original versions,
and the
subjects
understood the con-
tent and
implications
better when the contracts were written in
plain English.
The
most
effective
means
of enhancing comprehension
was that which included both
lexical and
syntactic manipulation of
text.
Subjects
said that
they preferred
the
plain English
versions
of
the contracts to the traditional versions.
&dquo;
ew
experiences
are as
refreshing
as
finding
a contract we can
read,&dquo;
Fsays
Crow
(1988, p. 86)
in his article
discussing
consumer
contracts,
readability,
and
comprehension.
Crows statement
will,
in
turn,
be refresh-
ing
for
many,
who will find that
they
are not alone in
feeling annoyed,
confused, frustrated,
and even intimidated or
stupid
when confronted
with a document that
they
feel is
beyond
their
comprehension.
As citizens and consumers we encounter
every day
and in almost
every
sphere
of
activity
documents that are less than
readable,
be
they
law and
regulations, instructions, manuals,
insurance
policies,
and so on. Criti-
cism of
writing
that is difficult to understand is not
new,
and over the
centuries there have been
attempts
to
change
the
way
official and other
public
documents are written so that
they
are understandable to those
who must read them. As
early
as the sixteenth
century,
for
example,
an
English judge
ordered a hole cut
through
the centre of a
particularly
lengthy
document filed in his court. He then ordered the
writer,
who
puffed up
the document from 16
pages
to
120,
to be led
around,
with the
head stuffed
through
the
hole,
in front of all those
attending
court
(Asprey, 1991; Wydick, 1985).
More recent calls for readable documents can be seen in
writings
since
the middle of this
century by
writers such as Rudolf Flesch
(1949/1974),
Sir Ernest Gowers
(1954/1986),
and Stuart Chase
(1954/1971). Many
law
professors
and
practitioners
have also advocated
simpler legal language,
including language
used in contracts
(e.g., Conard, 1947; Hager, 1959;
Mehler, 1960-1961; Mellinkoff, 1963/1973; Kimble, 1987, 1992; Garner,
1991a, 1991b).
Usually
written in
long,
convoluted sentences with archaic
words and
legal terms,
contracts are notorious for
being difficult,
if not
altogether impossible,
for
people
with no
legal training
to understand. In
this
paper
I describe a
study
conducted to test the level of consumer com-
prehension
of some bank contracts in New Zealand and the effect of
using
plain English
to rewrite them.
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
336
A
History
of the Plain
English
Movement
The
greatest impetus
for
change
in the
way public
documents were
written was the consumer movement in the United States in the 70s. The
movement not
only
led to better
products
and services but also
eventually
affected
aspects
of
language
used in the documents which described those
products
and services
(Eagleson, 1991b).
&dquo;Plain
English&dquo;
has been
put
for-
ward as an alternative to
&dquo;legalese&dquo;
and other
types
of
&dquo;gobbledegook,&dquo;
resulting
in the first
plain English
car insurance
policy,
introduced
by
Sentry
Insurance in 1974. This achievement was followed in 1975
by
the
first
plain English
loan note
by Citibank,
a
major
bank in New York. Other
insurance
companies
and banks as well as businesses in other industries
have since followed
Sentrys
and Citibanks lead in
making
their docu-
ments more
readily
understandable to consumers
(see,
for
example, Good,
1989; Jereb, 1991; Martin, 1989; Meitin,1985).
One of the most recent
developments
is the work done
by
Securities and
Exchange Commission,
which has
produced
a
plain English
handbook on how to create clear dis-
closure documents
(Office
of Investor Education and
Assistance, 1998).
Plain
English is, according
to
Eagleson (1990), &dquo;clear, straightforward
expression, using only
as
many
words as are
necessary.
It is the
language
that avoids
obscurity,
inflated
vocabulary
and convoluted sentence con-
struction&dquo;
(p. 4).
Its
language
is &dquo;unadorned with
archaic, multisyllabic
words and
majestic
turns of
phrase
that even educated readers cannot
understand&dquo;
(Redish, 1985, p. 125).
It is &dquo;a full version of the
language,
complete
and
accurate,
... written with the readers needs in mind&dquo;
(McLaren, 1996, p. 2)
and
&dquo;conveys
the writers
message
in an effective
and efficient manner&dquo;
(Law
Reform Commission of
Victoria, 1987, p. 3).
Some
guidelines
advocated
by plain English proponents
include
using
plain words, keeping
the
average
sentence
length short, avoiding
nomi-
nalizations and
passive constructions, personalizing
the
message
with
first- and
second-person pronouns,
and
using examples
and scenarios to
help explain concepts.
The
plain English concept
has been
gaining increasingly widespread
recognition,
not
only
in the
private
sector but also in
government
and law.
Concerned over &dquo;consumer credit contracts couched in
language
under-
standable
only by
those versed in arcane subtleties of creditor remedies&dquo;
(Givens, 1981, p. 11),
the State of New York enacted in 1977 a law which
required
not
only public
but also
private
bodies to
express
themselves in
a
way
that
people
can understand
(Vernon, 1980).
In
1978,
President
Carter
signed
Executive Order No. 12044
requiring
federal officials to
write
regulations
in
plain English
&dquo;understandable to those who must
comply
with them&dquo;
(Leskovac, 1987, p. 1193).
Many
states in the USA
have since
passed plain English
acts
regulating
the
style
of
writing
of cer-
tain consumer
contracts, including leases, mortgages,
service
contracts,
credit
applications,
loan
forms,
and insurance
policies (Redish, 1985).
In
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337
1998 President Clinton
(1998)
issued a memorandum
urging
executive
departments
and
agencies
to
adopt plain English
in their
writing (memo-
randum
reproduced
in full in
Clarity, September, 1998, p.
3).
On the research
front,
scholars have conducted studies to find effec-
tive
ways
to write or rewrite documents so that
they
are
readily
under-
standable to readers.
Although readability
formulas were
popular
in the
early years
(see Davison, 1986,
and
Schriver, 1991,
for overviews of read-
ability research),
and are still used
today
in various
computerised forms,
debate continues about their
suitability
and
validity
as measurement and
predictor
of the
comprehensibility
of documents
(e.g., Shelby, 1992;
Stevens, Stevens,
&
Stevens, 1992).
Research has
suggested
that
compre-
hensibility
is more than a matter of short words and short sentences
measured
by readability
formulas
(e.g.,
Charrow &
Charrow, 1979; Flower,
Hayes,
&
Swarts, 1985;
Redish &
Selzer, 1985; Schriver, 1997).
Charrow
and Charrow
(1979),
for
example,
have found that
linguistic
features such
as
nominalisations, passive constructions,
and noun
strings
create
prob-
lems in
comprehension. Flower, Hayes,
and Swarts
(1985)
have found that
to understand
documents,
readers create &dquo;scenarios&dquo; in which human
agents
take actions in
explicit
situations.
They
recommend revision strate-
gies,
based on the scenario
principle,
that include
organising
information
around actions and the readers
likely questions, using headings
with a
human
focus,
and
giving examples
and cases. Other research has focused
on the
organisational
factors in
reading
and
comprehension (e.g., Suchan,
1998;
Suchan &
Colucci, 1989; Suchan,
&
Dulek, 1990).
The
plain English
movement has
spread
to countries other than the
USA.
Developments
in
Britain, Canada, Australia,
and South Africa have
been well documented
(see,
for
example, Cutts,
&
Maher, 1980; Eagleson,
1991a; Kimble, 1996-1997; Perrin, 1990;
Canadian Bar Association &
Canadian Bankers
Association, 1990; Knight, 1996a, 1996b).
In the bank-
ing industry,
St.
George
in Australia
(Bennett, 1993)
and the Bank of
Nova Scotia in Canada
(Dick, 1980, 1985)
are
examples
of
banking
insti-
tutions that have rewritten
documents,
such as
mortgage contracts,
in
plain English.
Plain
English
in New Zealand
In recent
years,
New Zealand
government agencies
and businesses have
become more aware of the need for and the benefits of
providing
their
publics
with
readily
understandable documents.
Telecom,
for
example,
announced in 1992 that its new
telephone directory
was written in
plain
English
to make it more
easily
accessible to users. Some
professional
groups
such as the Law Commission of New
Zealand,
the
Airways
Cor-
poration,
Inland Revenue
staff,
and finance houses have also been keen
to train their members in the art of
writing effectively
and have
sought
help
in the form of
workshops
and seminars from
plain English experts
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338
and consultants. Even the rule book for
rugby
has now been rewritten in
plain English
so that the rules are
easy
to read and understand for both
referees and
players
on the one hand and
spectators
on the other
(&dquo;Rugby,&dquo;
1994).
The
pioneering
work in
plain English writing
for the
public
in New
Zealand occurred in 1985
through
the initiative of the Public Trust
Office,
an
organisation
whose services include the
preparation
of wills. The
Public Trust Office
prepares
and holds wills on behalf of 16% of the adult
population (Public
Trust
Office, 1991).
In
1985,
it decided to take a dif-
ferent
approach
to will
writing.
Instead of the
traditional, legalese style
it
had been
using
for more than a hundred
years,
it
completely
rewrote its
wills
precedents using plain English. According
to the Public
Trust,
the
exercise was a
great success,
with
many
new and
existing
customers
requesting
that their wills be written in
plain English.
In the business
year ending
31 March
1988,
it had drafted a record number of new
wills,
and in the
following
business
year
a record number of its clients revised
their wills
(Public
Trust
Office, 1991).
Since the work initiated
by
the Public
Trust,
a number of insurance
companies
have moved or are
moving
towards
plain English
documenta-
tion. State Insurance was the first to rewrite its
policies
in
plain English.
A Tower
Corporation
director with a &dquo;distaste for
gobbledegook&dquo;
(&dquo;Woman,&dquo; 1993, p. 2)
issued an internal booklet called &dquo;Plain
English&dquo;
to
encourage
staff to
drop jargon.
Sun Insurance commissioned a communi-
cation
design company
to rewrite its
agency agreement
in
plain English,
the new
agreement beginning
with the
following:
&dquo;Part of our commitment
to
you
is to
provide you
with all the information
you
need.
Accordingly,
this
agreement
has been written in
plain English&dquo; (1993, p. 3; personal
communication,
Dr. H.
Malloy,
Van De Roer
Design,
17
August 1994).
In the
legal profession,
the move towards
plain English
has been
hap-
pening
on two fronts:
legal
documents in
ordinary
use and
language
used
in
legislation.
The Dunedin
Community
Law Centre
(1994),
for
example,
has
published
the book The Law and You in
plain English
to educate the
public
about some basic laws that affect
daily
life. The Christchurch Com-
munity
Law
Centre, commenting
on insurance
practices
in New
Zealand,
favors better communication and
plain English pamphlets
or resources
(Ministry
of Consumer
Affairs, 1993).
Many big
law
firms,
and some
smaller ones
too,
have
plain English specialists
to make sure that docu-
ments for clients do not leave the office in
legalese.
The Institute of Pro-
fessional
Legal
Studies for some
years
now has been
teaching plain Eng-
lish to
newly graduated lawyers
as
part
of their
professional training
before admission to the Bar.
When the Labour
party
won the
majority
of seats in New Zealands
parliament
in
1984, part
of its mandate for an
&dquo;open government&dquo;
was to
simplify
laws to make them as
readily
understandable as
possible (Palmer,
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339
1988).
To that
end,
the New Zealand Law Commission was established in
1985 to
&dquo;propose ways
of
making legislation
as understandable and acces-
sible as
practicable
and of
ensuring
that it is
kept
under review in a
sys-
tematic
way&dquo; (New
Zealand Law
Commission, 1990, p.
ix).
The Commis-
sion
produced reports suggesting ways
to avoid
prolixity
and
tautology
(1990)
and
providing plain English guidelines
for the structure and
style
of
legislation (New
Zealand Law
Commission, 1996).
At
present,
the
Income Tax Act is
being
rewritten. The act is
being
reordered and reor-
ganized
into a
logical,
structured format and
plain English
is
being
used
in the rewrite to make the act more readable
(&dquo;Language,&dquo; 1995;
McLaren
&
Harrison, 1998).
These
developments
show that there is an
increasing
awareness of a
style
of
writing
that allows citizens and consumers to
participate
in
social,
commercial, legal,
and other activities more
effectively through being
able
to understand the information
presented
to them.
However,
the
adoption
of
plain English
is not as
widespread
as
proponents
would have
liked, par-
ticularly
in
major private
sectors. In the
banking industry,
for
example,
contracts are still far from readable for
consumers, despite
the effort of
the New Zealand Bankers Association to
encourage
banks to
improve
cus-
tomer-oriented documentation.
In its Code of
Banking Practice,
the New Zealand Bankers Association
gives
the
following
directive: &dquo;Banks will
provide
customers with the
terms and conditions of
any banking
service. Where this is
expressed
in
writing
banks will use
plain language
to the extent that it is consistent
with the need for
legal certainty&dquo; (1992,
Clause
2.2, p. 2).
While a few
banks have
begun
to work toward
&dquo;user-friendly&dquo;
documentation on some
forms and
brochures,
the efforts have been few and far between. As an
industry,
banks still have a
long way
to
go.
The
study reported
in this
paper
was conducted to see whether
rewriting
bank documents in
plain
English
would
help non-expert
consumers to understand them better.
Test of Plain
English
in Canada
The motivation for the
study
was derived in
part
from research carried
out in Canada
by
Masson and Waldron
(1994),
who tested the
compre-
hensibility
of four
legal contracts,
each one
having
been redrafted in three
styles.
In the &dquo;archaic-terms-removed&dquo;
version,
archaic terms in the
orig-
inal document were
replaced
or removed and redundant words or
phrases
deleted. In the
&dquo;plain language&dquo; version,
difficult words were
replaced
with
simpler ones, long
sentences divided into shorter
ones, passive
voice
changed
into active
voice,
and references to the
parties replaced
with the
pronouns
&dquo;I&dquo; and
&dquo;you.&dquo;
In the final
draft,
the
&dquo;legal-term-defined&dquo;
ver-
sion,
all
legal
terms in the
plain language
version were
replaced by
sim-
pler,
more common words or were
explained
in the text.
In Masson and Waldrons
study,
48
non-experts
read the documents
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340
while
being timed,
answered
hypothetical
scenario
questions,
and
para-
phrased
a
segment
of the documents.
Although
the use of
plain English,
in the
plain-language
and
legal-terms-defined versions,
did not affect read-
ing
rates
significantly,
it resulted in a
significant
increase in the
per-
centage
of
propositions,
or idea
units, being correctly
recalled and
para-
phrased, compared
with the versions that did not use
plain English.
For
the scenario
questions,
in which the
subjects
had to
give
a
&dquo;yes&dquo;
or &dquo;no&dquo;
answer and then
justify it,
the use of
plain English improved
the
accuracy
of both the decisions and the
justifications. Merely removing
archaic
terms or
including
definitions of
legal
terms did not affect
performance
significantly.
Masson and Waldrons
study provides empirical
evidence that
simpli-
fying drafting style
increases
comprehension
but
that,
to make real
gains,
the revisions &dquo;must attack the
complexity
of
language
and
syntax
in a
more radical
way&dquo;
than
simply removing
word-level barriers
(1994, p.
78).
Pilot
Study
Before the
study reported
in this
paper
was
conducted,
I interviewed
36
people
about the state of
plain language
in New Zealand
surveyed
1,000
customers of 7
major
banks in New Zealand
by
mail.
The aim of the interviews was to find out about the state of affairs of
the
plain English
movement in New Zealand and about current
opinions
concerning
consumer documentation in
general
and bank contracts in
particular.
Of the
people interviewed,
26 were
personnel,
both
managerial
and
front-line,
from the seven
banks,
and 10 were from outside the bank-
ing industry.
The non-banker interviewees were chosen because of their )
involvement with or interest in issues
relating
to
plain English, compre-
hensible consumer-oriented
documents,
document
design,
or
legal writing.
,
These include
lawyers,
one of whom had been a
major
force behind the
rewriting
of the Public Trust Office wills and one of whom was an instruc-
tor at the Institute of Professional
Legal Studies;
the Chief Executive of
the Consumers
Institute,
a director of a communications
design company,
and a
manager
from the
Ministry
of Consumer Affairs.
The
goal
of the mail
survey
was to find out whether consumers who
had the
types
of bank contracts under
study
understood them.
Responses
from 234 customers
(24%)
revealed that customers
generally
found their
bank contracts difficult to understand. The
response
did not come as a
surprise
to bank
personnel
interviewed. Some of the
personnel,
even
those who dealt with these contracts
regularly,
conceded that
they
them-
selves had
problems understanding
these documents. Guided
by
their
commonsense
assumption
that
plain English,
as
opposed
to
legalese,
would be more conducive to
comprehension, they supported
the idea that
bank contracts should be
simplified.
Some
personnel, however,
were not
convinced about the
benefits, legal
or
otherwise,
of
plain English.
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
341
Research Questions
The
study
was
designed
to answer the
following questions:
RQ
1: Would
non-expert
readers read the
plain English
versions of a
contract faster?
RQ
2: Would
non-expert
readers understand the content and
implica-
tions of a bank contract in the
plain English
versions more
effectively?
RQ
3: If
they did,
what
types
of
change (lexical, syntactic,
or format-
ting)
would make the most difference?
Method
The
study reported
in this
paper employed
research
techniques
based
on those used in Masson and Waldron but did not
replicate
the Canadian
study exactly.
Some details
differed, particularly
in the
rewriting stages
and in the use of an
additional, qualitative
method.
Firstly,
the three
stages
of
simplification
were defined to more
clearly
distinguish among
different
types
of
manipulation.
Masson and Waldron
did not
clearly distinguish
lexical from
syntactic manipulation
of text.
While
changes
in
syntax
occurred in the second
stage
of
simplification,
changes
at the word level occurred in all three
stages.
In the
present
study,
lexical and
syntactic changes
were introduced at different
stages
so
that
any change
in
comprehension
could be more
effectively analyzed
and
explained.
Secondly,
Masson and Waldron did not test document
design. However,
simple
words and
short,
active sentences are not the
only
concerns of
plain
English proponents.
As research has
shown, aspects
of information
pres-
entation such as
format, layout, typography,
and
graphics
are also
impor-
tant for
readable, &dquo;user-friendly&dquo;
documents
(see,
for
example,
Battison &
Goswami, 1981; Charrow, 1988; Felker, 1980; Redish, Battison,
&
Gold,
1985; Schriver, 1997; Wright, 1980, 1982, 1984). Hence,
the
study reported
in this
paper incorporated
some
design
features in the last version.
Thirdly,
because a
single
research
strategy
is often too limited to
cap-
ture the
complexity
of &dquo;real-world&dquo;
problems (Denzin, 1978; Burgess, 1982;
Mingers
&
Brockleby, 1995),
a
qualitative component,
in which
subjects
were interviewed after the
reading test,
was added to
provide
another
per-
spective.
The
multiple-strategy approach
was
adopted
to overcome the &dquo;nar-
rowness&dquo; of the
quantitative, experimental approach.
It was
anticipated
that
subjects
comments
regarding
their
feelings
about the
documents,
the diffi-
culties
they
encountered
during
the
test,
and so on would
complement
or
help
to
explain
the results obtained from the
psycholinguistic part
of the
study, thereby affording
richer
insights
into the
problem.
Subjects
Sixty
volunteers
participated
in the
study.
These volunteers were
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342
solicited
through posters put up
at various
strategic places
around and
outside the
University
of
Waikato; through
distribution of advertisement
leaflets to
parents
at some schools in the
city
of
Hamilton,
New
Zealand;
through
word of
mouth;
and
through
the
snowballing technique
in which
subjects
who had
completed
the
study
were asked to tell others about the
study.
To eliminate the
language-ability variable, only
native
speakers
of
English
were
eligible
to
participate. Lawyers,
law
students,
and bank offi-
cers were excluded to avoid bias due to
familiarity
with the
type
of doc-
ument or the
writing style.
The
sample comprised
17 males and 43 females
aged
from 17 to 63.
Most
(78%)
were
aged
from 31 to 50.
Twenty-six subjects
(43%)
had at
least a bachelors
degree,
nine of whom also had a masters or doctorate
degree.
Ten
per
cent had no more than
secondary education,
and the rest
had some
post-secondary
education below a bachelors
degree.
Volunteers
came from a
range
of
occupations, including
homemakers
(15%), post-sec-
ondary
students
(15%), tradespeople (15%),
and
professionals
in various
fields
(55%).
Half of the
subjects
rated their
reading ability
as
very good,
35% as
good,
and 15% as
average.
None of the
subjects
rated their read-
ing ability
as
poor
or
very poor.
Subjects
were not
paid
for their
participation
but went into a
drawing
for three small
prizes
at the end of the
study.
As the
experiment
would
involve between 1-2 hours of
grueling
mental
activity,
which is a lot to ask
of
people,
the
prizes,
donated
by
local
banks,
were considered
necessary
as an incentive to attract volunteers.
Documents and Test Materials

Four documents and two


types
of
comprehension
tests were used in the
study.
The documents consisted of two
security
contracts
(contracts
for
loans with collateral
deposited
or
pledged
to ensure the bank of the
pay-
ment of the
loan)
and two card contracts. The two
security
contracts were
a memorandum of
mortgage
and a
guarantee
(a
document
by
a third
party promising
to
pay
if the borrower does not
pay),
and the two card
contracts were a cash card
(Automatic
Teller
Machine)
contract and a
credit card contract.
Only
an
excerpt,
a
conceptually
coherent
segment,
of
each document was used. A fifth
document,
an extract from a student
loan
contract,
was used as a
practice
document. The
purpose
of the
prac-
tice document was for the
subjects
to do a &dquo;trial run&dquo; to familiarize them-
selves with the
procedures
of the
study
before
they
read the &dquo;test&dquo; docu-
ments
(i.e.,
the
excerpts
of the four documents under
study).
The
excerpts
varied in
length
from 357 words to 465
words,
with an
average
of 420 words. Each
document, apart
from the
practice document,
which was used
only
in its
original form,
was rewritten into three differ-
ent versions
representing
three different
stages
of
simplification.
As in
the Masson and Waldron
(1994) study,
the
object
of the
rewriting
was
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
343
&dquo;not to
produce
a
perfect
draft nor even to
improve
the document as
much as
possible. Rather,
the
object
was to make
specific,
well-defined
changes
at each
stage
so that each
change
could be related to
any
meas-
urable
changes
in
comprehension&dquo; (p.
71).
Four versions of each of the test documents were
prepared.
The first
version was the
original
contract. Version 2 involved lexical
changes only.
Archaic
words,
uncommon
words,
and common words with uncommon
meanings
were
replaced
or deleted
depending
on context. Redundant
words or
phrases
were eliminated. Difficult words and
legal
terms were
replaced
where
possible
or defined. Sentence structure was not altered.
Version 2 was the &dquo;lexical version.&dquo;
In Version
3, syntactic changes
were added to the lexical
changes
made
in Version 2. Version 3
changed passive
voice to active voice where war-
ranted,
nominalizations to verb-based
constructions,
and
long
sentences
to shorter sentences with the use of
punctuation.
Version 3 was the
&dquo;syn-
tactic version.&dquo;
Version 4 retained the lexical and
syntactic changes,
and added
changes
in document
design. Changes
in the format and
layout,
such as
the use of
headings
and
sub-headings, bullets,
and
logical grouping
and
ordering
of
information,
were introduced. The result of this modification
was the &dquo;formatted version.&dquo;
The
original
and lexical
versions,
which are closer to the
typical style
of
writing employed
in contracts due to minimal
manipulation,
are
referred to here as &dquo;traditional versions.&dquo; The
syntactic
and formatted ver-
sions,
which underwent more dramatic
changes
to make them
simpler,
are
referred to here as
&dquo;plain English&dquo;
versions. A
portion
of each version of
one document is shown in
Appendix
A.
I made
many
more
changes
in the
security
documents than in the card
documents because the former
were,
to
begin with,
much less
&dquo;plain&dquo;
than
the card documents. That
is, they
contained more features of
legalese
than the card documents. As a
result, changes
to the card documents
were fewer in all
stages
of
rewriting
than
changes
to the
security
docu-
ments.
The 16 test documents
(4
versions of 4
contracts)
were
arranged
into
four
sets,
each set
consisting
of one version of the
mortgage contract,
one
of the
guarantee,
one of the cash
card,
and one of the credit card. The
four documents in each set were
arranged
so that each document
appeared
in a different version. For
example,
a set
may
contain version 1
of the
mortgage contract,
version 2 of the credit card
contract,
version 3
of the
guarantee contract,
and version 4 of the ATM contract. Each sub-
ject
read one of these sets. The four sets of test documents were
presented
in
cycles.
That
is,
the first four
subjects
would read the
first, second,
third,
and fourth sets
respectively;
then the next four
subjects
would do
the same. Each time a
cycle
was
completed (i.e.,
all four sets were
read,
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
344
by
four
subjects),
each of the 16 test documents would have been read
once.
Therefore,
with 60
subjects,
each version of each of the four con-
tracts was read 15 times.
Two
types
of
comprehension
tests were used for each document set: a
question-answering
task and a
paraphrase
task. For the
question-answer-
ing task,
a
hypothetical
situation was created and the
subjects
were asked
to assume that
they
were in that
particular
situation
(for
example, having
bought
a house with a bank loan or
having
become a
guarantee
for a
sister;
see
Appendix
A for a full
example).
A set of four scenario
questions
then
tested the
subjects understanding
of the contract read. Each
question
required
a
two-part response.
First the
subjects
had to answer a
&dquo;yes&dquo;
or
&dquo;no&dquo;
question
about the
scenario,
and then
they
had to
justify
their deci-
sion
using
information that
they
had received from
reading
the document.
For the
paraphrase task, subjects
were asked to reread and then
para-
phrase
a short
segment
from the document. The content of the
segment
was
comparable
across the four
versions, although
the
length varied, rang-
ing
from 80 to 116
words,
with an
average
of 90 words. The aim of the
paraphrase
was to test recall. Goodman and Green
(1989)
have used the
paraphrase procedure successfully
in a
study
of
jury comprehension.
A
segment
for
paraphrase
from one of the
versions,
followed
by
a list of
propositions,
is shown in
Appendix
B.
The
preparation
of the documents and test materials was carried out
in consultation with two
linguists
from the
University
of Waikato and a
lawyer.
The service of the
lawyer
was
sought
to ensure that the rewritten
versions retained all
legal meaning
and were
legally
sound and that the
scenario
questions
were
plausible.
The materials were
pre-tested
with four
people
with
varying
levels of education.
Other Materials
Volunteers also received three other documents
during
the
experiment.
An introduction sheet
explained
what the
study
was about and
gave gen-
eral instructions as to what the
subjects
would be
required
to do
during
the
study.
An evaluation form at the end of each read-and-test
cycle
asked
subjects
to rate the ease or
difficulty
of each document on a scale of one
to
five,
one
being &dquo;very easy&dquo;
and five
being &dquo;very
difficult.&dquo;
Finally,
each
subject
was asked to
complete
a
questionnaire
on
demographic
data such as
age, sex, income,
and education and an
entry
form for the
prize drawing.
Test Procedures
Subjects
were tested
individually
in a
quiet room,
either in
my
office
at the
university (50 subjects)
or in their homes
(10
subjects).
The
testing
took,
on
average,
one hour and 42
minutes,
the shortest session
being
70
minutes and the
longest being
three and a half hours. The
procedures
for
the
experiment
were as follows.
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
345
The
subjects
were assured of
confidentiality
and
anonymity
and asked
to
sign
the consent form. The introduction was read out loud to the sub-
jects,
who were
given
a
copy
and were
urged
to read
along.
The
subjects
were assured that the
study
was not
testing
their
ability
to read and under-
stand but rather the
ability
of the writers of the contracts to communicate
information to consumers.
Subjects
then
completed
the
practice
run and
were
given
an
opportunity
to ask
questions
about the
procedures
or
any-
thing
that
they
were not sure about before
reading
the test documents.
The
subjects
were then
presented
with one of the four sets of test doc-
uments.
They
were
required
to read one contract at a time and do the
associated tests before
they
went on to the next contract in the set. To
avoid the order
effect,
the
subjects
determined the
type
of contract to be
read
by randomly picking
a
piece
of
paper
out of a small box
holding,
at
the
beginning
of the
study,
four
pieces
of
paper representing
the four con-
tract
types.
As described
earlier,
the version each contract was in had
been
pre-assigned.
The
subjects
first read the
hypothetical
situation
relating
to the con-
tract that
they
had
picked. They
were invited to ask
any questions
that
they might
have about the situation
they
were to assume to be in or about
any
words in the
situation,
and I
responded
to these
questions orally.
When
they
said that
they
understood
everything
and did not have
any
more
questions, they
then read the test document.
They
were told that
although
the
reading
time would be
recorded,
there was no time limit and
that
they
could take as
long
as
they
needed. When
they
had finished read-
ing
and the
reading
time was
recorded,
the contract was removed and the
four scenario
questions
were
presented
to
them,
one at a time. The sub-
jects
wrote the answer for each
question
on a
separate page
of the answer
booklet. To ensure random
presentation
of
questions,
the order in which
a
question
was
given
was determined
by
the
subjects picking
a number
out of a box.
When all four
questions
for that scenario had been
answered,
the sub-
jects
read the
paraphrase segment
of the contract
(in
the same version as
the
complete document)
while
being
timed and
then,
the
segment having
been
removed,
rewrote it in their own words. The &dquo;read-and-test&dquo;
cycle
for
the contract ended with the
subjects evaluating
the ease or
difficulty
of
the document. The
subjects
then
repeated
the
cycle
with another contract
until all four were read and tested.
After all four read-and-test
cycles
had been
completed,
the
subjects
were invited to comment on the contract that
they
found to be the most
difficult or that
they
had the most
problems
with. The
purpose
of this
part
of the
study,
which was
tape-recorded
to save time and to ensure
accuracy,
was to find out what
particular
or
general aspects
of the con-
tract the
subjects
had
problems
with and
why.
The
subjects
were also
asked what
changes they
would make so that the contract would be more
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
346
readily
understandable to consumers
with, say,
a
high
school education.
Towards the end of the
discussion, they
were shown other versions of the
contract so
they
could
compare
them and make further comments.
At the end of the
study,
the
subjects
filled in the
demographic ques-
tionnaire and the
entry
form for the
drawing.
Analysis
Procedures
Responses
from the read-and-test
cycles, apart
from the evaluation
component,
were
analyzed
in terms of three
aspects
of behavioural data:
reading rate, completeness
of
paraphrase,
and
accuracy
of answers and
justifications.
For each of these
aspects,
the mean score associated with
each of the document versions was obtained.
The 60
subjects
formed four
groups
of
15,
each
responding
to one ver-
sion of each of the four documents.
Preliminary analyses
indicated that
there were differences in the
performance
of the four
groups.
That
is,
the
differences
among
the 15 did not cancel themselves out
among
the four
groups.
This means that these individual differences could have had a
bearing
on the
resulting
statistics.
Accordingly,
to ensure that the four
groups
of
subjects
were
comparable,
an
analysis
of variance
(ANOVA)
treating subjects
as a
blocking
factor was carried out for each
response
variable. This
analysis
is more
sophisticated
than the basic
analysis
of
variance in that it takes into account individual differences in
perform-
ance. This enables more accurate statistics to be
obtained,
when
compar-
isons are made
among
different
versions,
than
comparing
the basic aver-
ages
of the 15
people
in each
group
would
yield.
The written
paraphrase protocols
were scored
independently by
two
raters,
who evaluated and counted the
propositions,
or idea
units,
con-
tained in the recalled
segments.
When the evaluations
differed,
the raters
discussed them and reached consensus on whether or not to
assign
credit.
Results and Discussion
Analysis
of variance
suggests
that
overall,
there was a version effect
(that is,
the difference in
performance
that is due to the difference in ver-
sion)
on the
reading
rate for the entire document
(F (3, ls2)
=
4.19, p
<
0.01),
but not for the
paraphrase segment.
This result is different from
that obtained
by
Masson and Waldron
(1994),
who found no version effect
on the
reading
rate either for the entire document or for the
paraphrase
segment.
The mean
reading rates,
measured in words
per minute,
for the
four entire documents are shown in Table 1.
It would be reasonable to assume that as a document
progressed
from
version 1 to version
4,
it would become
increasingly &dquo;simpler&dquo;
and that
subjects
would read the documents
progressively
faster.
However,
the
pre-
diction was not
consistently
borne out across versions and contract
types.
Instead,
as Table 1
shows,
a different but
interesting pattern prevailed.
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
347
Table I
Mean
reeding
rates
(in
words
per minute)
for endre docuinents
n = 15
Degrees
of freedom: 162
Significance
Between documents:
p
=
.001
Between versions:
p
=
.007
Interaction:
p
=
.067
Table 1 shows a
tendency
for the
subjects
to read the
manipulated
ver-
sions more
slowly,
not
faster,
than
they
did the
original.
In
particular,
the
words
per
minute
dropped
across all documents from the
original
with
the lexical version.
A
plausible explanation
for the counter-intuitive result is that with the
original version,
which was full of
technical, difficult, archaic,
and
uncommon
words, particularly
for the
security contracts,
the
subjects
did
not even bother to
try
to &dquo;read for
understanding.&dquo; Instead,
it was
likely
that
they just
skimmed
through
the document
quickly,
decided that it was
too difficult to
attempt thorough reading,
and
gave up. Consequently,
the
documents
appeared
to have been &dquo;read&dquo;
quickly.
With the word-level bar-
riers
removed, however,
the documents would have looked more readable
or
manageable.
It was
likely
that the
subjects
would have been more
inclined to
attempt
to read them more
seriously, resulting
in their
spend-
ing
more time
going through
the document
and, therefore,
in the
drop
in
the
reading
rate. Comments such as the
following by subjects during
the
end-of-experiment
discussion
support
this
argument:
&dquo;I found documents
like this to be
annoying
I couldnt be
bothered,&dquo;
&dquo;I didnt even feel like
trying
because all I could think about was how
long
the sentence
was,&dquo;
and &dquo;I lost interest in about ten seconds.&dquo;
With the
syntactic version,
where the
long,
convoluted
sentences,
which
were much more common in the
security
documents than in card docu-
ments,
were
eliminated,
the
subjects
were further motivated to read for
understanding.
The formatted
version, however,
did not
significantly
affect
the
reading
rate in a consistent
way
across document
types.
A
possible
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
348
explanation
is that the effectiveness of format and
layout might
be more
relevant to
speed
of information searches
(where
readers have to locate a
specific piece
of
information)
than to the
speed
of
reading
in
general.
The
Paraphrase
Task
Analysis
of variance shows that the different versions had a
significant
effect on the number of
propositions
recalled
(F~3, 165)
=
6.73, p
<
.001).
The number of
propositions
recalled increased
steadily
from the
original
version to the formatted version. Recall was
poorest
with the
original
ver-
sion
(37.12%).
Removing
archaic and difficult words
improved perform-
ance to 42.11%. More
gains, however,
were obtained in the
syntactic
(46.79%)
and formatted
(47.86%)
versions.
The results confirm that
rewriting
the documents in
plain English
improved
the
comprehensibility
as measured
by
the number of
proposi-
tions recalled in the
paraphrase
task. It also
suggests
that even
though
merely removing jargon
and archaic and difficult words does not neces-
sarily
result in
plain English, it, nevertheless,
is a worthwhile
step
to take
as it
helps
to enhance recall of information.
However,
as in the Masson
and Waldron
study,
the
generally
low rates of recall
(grand
mean of the
percentage
of
propositions
recalled
=
43.47)
indicate that the
subjects
did
not understand what
they
read
very well,
whatever the version. The
impli-
cation of the results obtained is that
simplification alone, though helpful
in
raising
the level of
recall, may
not be the ultimate answer.
Major
recon-
ceptualizations
of the order and
presentation
of information such as those
based on the scenario
principle (Flower, Hayes,
&
Swarts, 1985),
which
were not
part
of the
present study, might
have
helped subjects
to under-
stand the content of the documents better.
The
Question-Answering
Task
For the
&dquo;yes&dquo;
or &dquo;no&dquo;
answer, analysis
of variance shows that there was
no
significant
difference in the mean
percentages
of
right responses
among
versions. This could be because some
questions
could be answered
with common sense or
experience.
There
was, however,
a
statistically
non-
significant
trend for the means of
responses
for the
syntactic
and format-
ted versions to be better than those for the
original
and lexical versions.
For the
justification part
of the
response,
statistical
analysis
indicates
that overall there was a version effect in the mean
percentage
of correct
justifications
(F(3~ 165)
=
2.93, p
<
0.05). Except
for the cash card docu-
ment, subjects performed
better for the
syntactic
version than for the
original
version. This is
especially
so for the
mortgage
and the
guarantee
(44.596
versus 27.9% for
mortgage
and 74.5% versus 55.4% for
guarantee).
The version effect for the credit card document was less
spectacular,
with
percentage
of correct
justifications rising
from 81.6% for the
original
ver-
sion to 89.3% for the
syntactic
version. In contrast to the other three doc-
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
349
uments, performance
for the cash card document did not
vary signifi-
cantly
across versions. The cash card contract was
perhaps
the
plainest
of the
originals.
The fact that
many
more
changes
were made on the secu-
rity
documents than on the credit card document indicates that the sim-
plification
would make more
impact
on documents that are written in a
more
traditional, legalese style
than on documents that are
already
com-
paratively &dquo;plain.&dquo;
The lexical version of the
mortgage, guarantee,
and credit card con-
tracts also
produced
some
improvement
in the
quality
of
reasoning
of sub-
jects, although
to a less
impressive degree,
with the
following
mean
per-
centages
of correct
justification:
36.8%
(versus 27.990)
for
mortgage,
64.1%
(versus 55.4%)
for
guarantee,
and 87%
(versus 81.6%)
for credit card doc-
uments. This
suggests
that
merely simpliiying
the words used
may
enhance
comprehension
of readers
(even
if
indirectly through
the fact that
readers are
encouraged
to read the document
carefully).
The formatted
version,
on the other
hand,
did not further increase
comprehension
beyond
that achieved at the
syntactic
level. As has
already
been men-
tioned,
format and
layout may
have more effect on
improving
the
speed
of access than on the level of
understanding.
Subjects
Evaluations and Comments
Evaluations
by
the
subjects
were tallied to find out how difficult
they
found the different documents and versions to be. Comments made were
transcribed and content
analysis performed
to arrive at the
types
of
prob-
lems the
subjects faced,
the reasons
they
offered for the
difficulties,
and
the
suggestions
for
improvement they might
have.
In terms of the
type
of
contracts, subjects
felt the
guarantee
was the
most difficult to read and
understand,
followed
by
the memorandum of
mortgage.
The former was evaluated as &dquo;difficult&dquo; or
&dquo;very
difficult&dquo;
by
83% of the
subjects,
and the latter was so evaluated
by
50% of the sub-
jects. Only
7% and 23%
thought
the
guarantee
and the
mortgage
contracts
respectively
was
&dquo;easy&dquo;
or
&dquo;very easy.&dquo;
The cash card and credit card
documents,
on the other
hand,
seemed
to be easier to read than the
security documents, being
rated as &dquo;diffi-
cult&dquo;
by
15% and 10% of the
subjects respectively.
Neither was rated as
&dquo;very
difficult.&dquo;
Nearly
half of the
subjects thought
the credit card docu-
ment,
even in its
original form,
was
&dquo;easy&dquo;
or
&dquo;very easy,&dquo;
and
nearly
two
thirds rated the cash card as
&dquo;easy
&dquo;or
&dquo;very easy.&dquo;
In terms of the different
versions,
more
subjects
rated the traditional
(original
and
lexical)
versions of each document as &dquo;difficult&dquo; or
&dquo;very
dif-
ficult&dquo; than
they
did the
plain English (syntactic
and
formatted)
versions.
For the
mortgage document,
38% of
subjects
rated the traditional versions
as &dquo;difficult&dquo; or
&dquo;very
difficult&dquo; as
opposed
to
only
12% for the
plain Eng-
lish versions.
Eighteen per
cent
thought
the
plain English
versions were
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
350
&dquo;easy&dquo;
or
&dquo;very easy&dquo;
whereas
only
5%
thought
the traditional versions
were. For the
guarantee document,
the difference was less
spectacular,
with 43% of
subjects rating
the traditional versions as &dquo;difficult&dquo; or
&dquo;very
difficult&dquo; and 40%
rating
the
plain English
so. None
thought
the tradi-
tional versions were
&dquo;easy&dquo;
or
&dquo;very easy&dquo; although
8%
thought
the
plain
English
versions were.
The difference between the traditional and the
plain English
versions
for card documents was less marked than for the
security
documents. For
the credit card
document,
21% rated the traditional versions as
&dquo;easy&dquo;
or
&dquo;very easy&dquo;
whereas 30% rated the
plain English
versions so. For the cash
card
documents,
the
figures
were 23% for the traditional versions and 32%
for the
plain English
versions. Neither the traditional versions nor the
plain English
versions were rated as
&dquo;very
difficult.&dquo;
Although
not
many
subjects
rated card documents as
&dquo;difficult,&dquo;
more did so with traditional
versions than the
plain English
versions.
Comments made
by subjects
echoed criticisms of traditional
legal
writ-
ing
and mentioned various
features,
for
example,
the sentence
length
and
structure,
the words
used,
the format and
layout.
The
subjects
found the
sentence structure in
traditional, legal
documents to be the main fault
and the most difficult to deal with. The
subjects
were
particularly
both-
ered
by
the
long, complex, wordy, unpunctuated
sentences of the
original
and lexical versions of the
mortgage
and
guarantee
documents.
Though
length by
itself does not
necessarily
result in structural
complexity
and
difficulty
in
comprehension,
as
many
scholars have
pointed
out
(e.g.,
Redish &
Selzer, 1985), long
sentences in
legal writing
are often &dquo;com-
plex&dquo;
to the readers due to the amount of information contained in
them,
the lack of
proper punctuation
to aid
reading,
and a structure that is not
immediately
clear
(see
Charrow
1979; Wang 1996).
Lexically,
the
subjects
found that common words used with
specialized
meanings,
such as
&dquo;prove&dquo;
or
&dquo;prove for,&dquo;
&dquo;these
presents,&dquo;
and even
&dquo;security,&dquo;
were the most difficult. Other
problematic
words included
archaic
words,
difficult
words,
and
legal
terms. When
subjects
were shown
all four versions of the document that
they
found to be most
difficult, they
were
invariably impressed
with the
transformation, particularly
of the
mortgage
and
guarantee
documents. Even
though
a few found the for-
matted version of the
security
documents still not
very easy
to under-
stand,
all said that
they
liked it better than other versions and that
they
found it easier to read and find information in.
Subjects
found the
headings
and
sub-headings
useful in that
they pro-
vided
context, signalling
to them what the
following paragraph
was about.
Many subjects
who read the
original
and lexical versions of the
security
contracts found that
they
understood certain
things
for the first time
when
they
were
comparing
the formatted version to the traditional ver-
sion
they
had read
during
the test.
Subjects
also liked the bullet format
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
351
and said that it
helped
with the
organization
of information in their mind.
When it was
explained
that
simplified
documents often were
longer
than
the
original
in terms of the number of
pages,
because of white
space,
the
explanations,
the
definitions,
and so
on,
all
subjects
who commented
agreed
that
longer
but more accessible contracts were
preferable
and
more conducive to
reading
than shorter but unreadable ones.
Comments such as &dquo;its almost like
they
dont want me to understand
it&dquo; and
&dquo;presumably
the banks ... benefit from
having language
more like
this ... because ... it must work to their
advantage
if
you
dont
really
know what
youre signing&dquo;
show that
subjects
had a low
opinion
of banks
and were
suspicious
that banks wrote
incomprehensible
documents on
purpose.
Such
cynicism
and mistrust do not make for a
healthy
relation-
ship
between banks and their customers. A number of
subjects
believed
that
putting
consumer-related contracts into
plain English
would be a
good public
relations exercise. As a
way
of
improving
the
documents, they
suggested
that banks
&dquo;get everyday people
to read and
point
out where
they
dont
understand,&dquo;
a
testing technique
advocated
by plain English
proponents.
It is clear from the comments that
subjects
in this
study preferred
plain English
versions of bank contracts and found them to be easier to
read and understand. This
finding
is inconsistent with Suchans
(1998)
finding
that
employees
of a
public
sector
bureaucracy
did not
prefer
reports
written in the
&dquo;user-friendly&dquo; (i.e., high-impact) style. However,
the
difference could be
explained by
the fact that while Suchans
study
was
conducted within an
organization,
where
subjects
were familiar with a
particular
bureaucratic
style,
which was treated as the
organisations
norm,
this
study
was conducted with
consumers,
who were not
likely
to
be familiar with and biased
by
the
style
of
writing
that
may
have been
regarded by
bank
personnel
as the norm. Suchans
qualitative analysis
shows that
organizationally-specific
context factors such as
report genre
expectations
and
organizational language
norms caused the readers to
perceive
the revised
reports
as
abnormal,
thus
deflecting
their attention
from
report
content. Such effects were not
likely
in the
present study,
as
bank
employees
were
among
those excluded from
participating
in the
present study
to avoid biases
arising
from
familiarity
with or
organiza-
tional attitudes about the
writing style.
Implications
The
study
has
many implications.
In the
legal profession,
many people
are uncomfortable
with,
if not
outright
resistant
to,
the idea of
writing
doc-
uments that clients or citizens can
understand, perhaps
because of the
reliance on
precedents
and the
misconceptions
about
legalese
and
plain
English. Although
there have been a number of successful
legal
documents
rewritten in
plain English,
such as St.
Georges
memorandum of
mortgage
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
352
and others mentioned
earlier,
some
legal professionals
are still
skeptical
about both the
possibility (i.e.,
the
&dquo;legal-matters-are-too-complex-to-be-writ-
ten-plainly&dquo; argument
and the
&dquo;legal-concepts-cantrbe-separated-from-the-
legal-language&dquo; argument)
and the benefits
(i.e.,
the
&dquo;people-do-not-read-
these-documents-anyway&dquo; argument)
of
plain-language legal
documents.
This
study
has lent
support
to the idea that
writing complex legal
docu-
ments in
simpler language
is
possible,
as has been shown
by
the number of
legal
contracts written or rewritten in the
USA, Australia,
and other coun-
tries. It has also shown that
non-experts
tend to be
encouraged
to read and
comprehension
enhanced. This
type
of
study
and documents that have
already
been
successfully
rewritten should be
given
a
higher profile
and
examples
from them used in law schools so that students are aware that an
alternative
way
of
drafting
exists.
Furthermore, principles
advocated
by
plain English proponents
discussed earlier should be
taught
to law students
to
equip
them with the
necessary
skills to write in
plain English.
For the
banking industry,
the
study
shows that
contrary
to the belief
held
by many,
the fact that some of the
banking
documents have been in
use for decades does not mean that
they
are understandable to those
they
are meant for.
Any
bank that is serious about
improving
communication
with its customers and about its
image
as a
caring
bank and a
good
citi-
zen should be concerned
by
the effects that its
incomprehensible
docu-
mentation has on customers: low
opinion
of the bank and lack of trust.
As
rewriting
documentation can be a
costly task,
it is understandable that
the
banking industry
is cautious about
committing
its time and
money
on
a
rewriting project.
The result of the
comprehension
tests in this
study
should raise the level of confidence in the effectiveness of the exercise.
Limitations and
Suggestions
for Further Research
The results of the
study
should be
interpreted
with some
caution,
as
there are
methodological
limitations that should be
kept
in mind. The first
set of limitations had to do with the
sample.
Because of
sampling
restric-
tions,
the
sample
cannot be said to be
representative
of all New Zealan-
ders. There was a lack of
gender
balance in the
sample,
for
example,
with
female
subjects comprising
71.67% of the
sample.
It is
possible
that if
more males were
included,
results could have been somewhat different.
The size of the
sample
is another feature that has to be taken into
account. Each version of each test document was read
by only
15
subjects.
Although
the number was sufficient to allow
patterns
to be discerned-
indeed,
it was
bigger
than Masson and Waldrons
sample-a larger sample
and
consequently
a
bigger sub-sample
for each test document would have
been
desirable.
The second set of limitations concerns the
comprehension
tests. For the
question-answering task,
there were
only
four
questions
to be answered for
each document. This did not leave much room for variation in the test
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
353
scores.
Subjects
either
got 25%, 50%,
75% or 100% correct.
Also,
some
ques-
tions could be answered not
by applying
information in the documents but
by using prior knowledge
or
experience
and what the
subjects
call &dquo;common
sense&dquo; or what Masson and Waldron call &dquo;folk theories&dquo;
(1994, p. 79).
For
example,
some
subjects reported,
either in their written answers or later
during
the
discussion,
that
they
had
already
had the notion that &dquo;the bank
has the first
go
at
your money&dquo;
or that &dquo;the bank can do
anything they
want.&dquo; These
subjects
would tend to
say &dquo;yes&dquo;
to
questions
which asked
&dquo;Can the bank do that?&dquo; A few admitted that
they guessed
the answers.
The
paraphrase
task did not take into account the level of
importance
of
propositions. Although
research has shown that the number of
propo-
sitions recalled is a valid indication of the
degree
of
comprehension,
it is
possible
that not all
propositions
are of
equal importance.
Different
pieces
of information
may
be
regarded,
both
by
consumers and
by banks,
as dif-
fering
in
importance. Consequently,
the different
weighting
readers
might
have
put
on different
propositions might
have had an effect on whether
or not a
proposition
is retained and recalled. In
addition,
there
may
also
be difference
among subjects
who recalled a number of
important propo-
sitions and those who recalled the same number of
propositions
but ones
which were considered not so
important.
In this
study,
the issue of
&dquo;important&dquo;
versus &dquo;not so
important&dquo;
information was not
explored.
All
propositions
were treated as of
equal
value.
In
light
of the above
sample
and test
limitations,
research with a
bigger
sample,
a more
representative gender composition,
and a
large
number of
scenario
questions
that
distinguishes
between the levels of
importance
attached to
propositions
would
provide
more
insights
and enable us to
interpret
the results with more confidence.
The third set of limitations involves the
study procedures.
The
study
took an
average
of one hour and
forty-two
minutes to
complete,
a
long
time for the
reading
of
serious, non-entertaining
materials. There was a
possibility
of
subject fatigue,
which in turn
might
have affected
subject
performance. However,
it can be
argued
that reader
fatigue
is an inher-
ent
problem
that
any non-expert
reader of
legal
contracts faces in real life
and thus is not a limitation.
The research
reported
in this
paper
was based on the
form,
as
opposed
to
content,
of contracts.
Although plain English
makes contracts more
easily
understandable and
accessible,
it does not
necessarily
result in
improved justice
for
consumers,
as much of the issue of
justice
is embed-
ded in the
substance,
or
content,
not form. Researchers interested in
pro-
viding
&dquo;the
complete picture&dquo;
could
investigate
the substantive fairness of
contracts to
complement
the
study
of
language
used in them. Such
research could look at
obtaining
both the consumers views and the views
of
legal
and
banking experts.
The research focused on the issue from the consumers
perspective.
It
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
354
did not address the
point
of view of the document drafters and the
bankers. It would be
interesting
to
gauge
the level of
enthusiasm, accept-
ance,
or resistance of those in the
legal
and
banking professions
towards
the
linguistic
reform of contracts. A
study
similar to that carried out
by
Kimble and
Prokop (1990)
could be
undertaken,
in which
pairs
of
para-
graphs
of rewritten contracts
(or, rather, parts
of
contracts)
and their
originals
were sent to
banking lawyers
and bank
personnel
to see what
kinds of
responses they
elicited. Such an exercise would also
help
raise
the
profile
of the
plain English
movement and motivate debate within the
legal
and
banking professions.
Conclusion
The
psycholinguistic study
of bank contracts discussed has
provided
evidence that there are benefits to be
gained
from
drafting
these con-
tracts in
plain English.
It has shown that
plain English
tends to encour-
age
the reader to read the documents more
carefully,
for
understanding,
as seen in the slower
reading
rates
brought
about
by
even the minimum
of
rewriting.
The better
performance
of
subjects
on recall and
justification
provides
evidence that
rewriting
the contracts in
plain English helps
the
reader to understand their content and
implications
better. The
study
has
also shown that the most effective means of
enhancing comprehension
is
that which includes both lexical and
syntactic manipulation
of text. How-
ever,
the low recall rate indicates that in
general subjects
did not under-
stand the documents
very
well whatever the version and
suggests
that lin-
guistic
and
superficial design changes may
not be
enough
to make the
documents
truly comprehensible.
NOTES
This
paper
is based on the authors doctoral dissertation
supervised by
Dr.
Margaret
McLaren
(Chief
Supervisor)
and Dr.
Terry Crowley (Second Supervisor),
University
of
Waikato, Hamilton,
New Zealand.
Earlier versions of this
paper
were
presented
at the Waikata
Management
School Student Research
Conference,
June 1997 and at the 63rd Annual Conven-
tion of the Association for Business
Communication,
November 1998.
Nittaya Campbell
is a lecturer at the
Department
of
Management
Communi-
cation,
Waikato
Management School, Hamilton,
New Zealand. She would like to
thank her
supervisors,
Dr.
Margaret
Mclaren and Dr.
Terry Crowley,
for their
help
and
guidance,
and Trust Bank Waikato
(now
Westpack Trust),
the ANZ
Banking
Group,
and
Countrywide
Bank for
providing
the
prizes
for the draw. She would
also like to thank Peter
Lewis, of McCaw, Lewis,
and
Chapman,
who
gave
her
advice on
legal
matters in
rewriting
the
documents,
and Dr.
Ray Littler,
Director
of The Centre for
Applied Statistics, University
of
Waikato,
for his
help
with the
statistical
analysis
of the data.
Send
correspondence
to
Nittaya Campbell
at The
University
of
Waikato, Depart-
ment of
Management
Communication,
Private
Bag 3195, Hamilton,
New Zealand
<nittaya@mngt.waikato.ac.nz>.
by Daniele Fortis on October 10, 2009 http://job.sagepub.com Downloaded from
355
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