Plain language and standards: The ISO standard for comprehensible texts is here. A German DIN standard is to follow

So far, there has been no strict rules for plain language. Now ISO has adopted the first standard for plain language. The ISO standard creates guidelines for comprehensible texts in all areas of public administration and corporate communication. It is also the basis of a DIN standard for the German language, which is currently in progress.

Whether it is a letter from the authorities, operating instructions or work instructions, texts with complex terms and long sentences are an obstacle for people with weak language and reading skills. This includes people with cognitive impairments or reading and spelling difficulties and also people who are not native speakers of the language being used. Plain language provides a remedy here and ensures that texts are written in such a way that they can be understood easily, quickly and as completely as possible.
In a separate article, we have shown what Plain Language is, where and in what form it can be used and what needs to be considered when using it. Now comes the formal framework.

New: The first international standard for Plain Language

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has now published ISO 24495-1, the first standard for Plain Language and simplifying written communication. It provides a clear understanding of what Plain Language is and how to implement it.
The document ISO 24495-1 includes recommendations and techniques as well as a checklist for the creation and use of comprehensible plain-language texts. The standard focuses on four essential principles:

  1. Relevance: Readers get what they need.
  2. Findability: Readers can easily find what they need.
  3. Comprehensibility: Readers can easily understand what they find.
  4. Applicability: Readers can easily use the information.

The standard was developed by an international working group together with experts from the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN). DIN will adopt the standard in the next few weeks as DIN ISO 24495-1 “Plain language — Part 1: Principles and guidelines” (ISO/DIS 24495-1:2022) in the German body of standards. The corresponding draft standard has already been published (only available in German) and can be obtained from the specialist publisher Beuth.

From recommendation to directive to international standard

The project was co-initiated by the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN), which in turn is a member of the International Plain Language Federation. The organisation has been bringing together supporters and users of Plain Language from around the world for over 20 years, working to promote it in both the private and public sectors. Support has steadily increased in the process. Over the years, almost all aspects of factual communication have come into view, such as legal texts, health information, PR messages or technical editing and documentation.

The efforts eventually also led to the establishment of a joint working group of the ISO Technical Committee (ISO/TC 37 “Language and terminology”). The current result of this working group is now ISO 24495-1 — the first standard for Plain Language.

The specific German standard for Plain Language will follow

Somewhat delayed from the founding of the ISO working group “Plain Language”, a national working group was founded at DIN in mid-2020. This is tasked with accompanying the work of the ISO working group at national level and, if necessary, developing rules and standards for plain language in German. This is because, as an international standard, ISO 24495-1 can only lay down generally applicable rules, but cannot provide language-specific recommendations and examples. In order to provide a practical standard for text production, specific standards per language are therefore needed.

The specific standard for the German language, which will specify the general recommendations from ISO 24495-1, is currently in the final phase before its publication. DIN 8581-1 “Plain language — Usage for German, Part 1: Language-specific specifications” was published as a draft in June 2023. The plan is for the standard to be published by the end of the year.

Everyone benefits from Plain Language and from the standard

Simple language enables easy-to-understand and thus efficient communication, which is particularly important in many areas, for example, health, law, public administration or banking. Basically, everywhere where information has an influence on people’s decisions and rights.
By using Plain Language, companies and organisations increase their accessibility. By conveying information in a comprehensible way, they achieve the desired results more quickly and save time and money.

With the international and the national standard, there are further advantages for companies and organisations that apply it: defined specifications and guidelines ensure basic requirements and simplify text creation. The time required should be reduced, while the quality should increase in many cases.

… also technical editing, documentation and translation

The advantages mentioned are also evident in our core area. This is because, as a rule, the translation process is also more efficient for documents in Plain Language than for documents that are difficult to understand.

The new Plain Language rules also have an influence on the work of the technical editors. With DIN EN ISO 20607 and DIN EN IEC/IEEE 82079-1, there are already well-developed standards that set standards for technical documentation. However, the two emerging standards, and especially the new DIN standard, have more of an impact on the linguistic design of documents in Plain Language. The draft already contains grammatical and stylistic rules for all linguistic levels. For example, it makes recommendations for sentence length, passive voice, subjunctive and also typographical marks.

However, initial practical tests already show that technical editors by no means have to rewrite their editorial guidelines if they want to produce DIN-compliant manuals. This is because the majority of the rules and recommendations correspond to the specifications that experienced practitioners know, for example, from the tekom guidelines and other industry standards. After all, they have been advocates and supporters of Plain Language from the very beginning.

Do you need to revise your texts in Plain Language or Simplified Technical English? Then talk to us.

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