August 28, 2019 On the Papers

“I Know It When I See It”: A New Way to Define the “Plain” in “Plain English”

Years of legislation have failed to understand what makes English “plain.” Here is a remedy.

George D. Gopen

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We should all congratulate the many excellent people who, in the past 60 years, have labored to recognize the need of ordinary, non-lawyer folks to understand the language of legal documents that control important parts of their lives. We all should be able to understand what our rights are under layaway plans, insurance policies, and real estate rental agreements. Thirty-seven states now require that documents like these must be written in what is called “plain English.” That is a wonderful achievement. One problem, however, persists: All of this legislation fails to understand what makes English “plain.” I have a remedy to suggest.

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