How to achieve administrative and legal texts that are easily understood


Who has not had it happen to you, when filling out an official form, that you are not able to choose one of the options because you do not understand which one best suits your situation? Or having to read a paragraph of an administrative statement several times until it becomes impossible?

Even experts and linguists agree that administrative and legal language stands out for its lack of transparency . It is often a very archaic, high-sounding language, with long formulations, lack of logical transitions, use of foreign words, accompanied by multiple repetitions, incomprehensible abbreviations, absence or excess of punctuation . An example:
“Let this Judgment be immediately signed, with testimony of it expressing its finality to the corresponding RC, in order to proceed with the marginal annotation of the same in the marriage registration entry” (divorce judgment).

Knowing how to read or knowing the language of the text is not enough for its understanding. Some authors agree that there is an intentional complication in legal texts, which creates ambiguity of meaning and confusion .

According to the UNESCO Human Rights Convention, everyone has the right to information . Administrative texts affect important aspects of citizens’ lives. If we also take into account that many may have different academic backgrounds, cognitive abilities or even knowledge of the language, it is evident that these texts should be especially easy to understand.

European easy reading guidelines

One of the ways to simplify administrative and legal texts would be to apply the European easy reading guidelines . “Easy reading” is a variant of the language with a reduced lexical and grammatical composition to which all written content with relevant information for citizens must be “translated”.

Our research group is one of many dedicated to barrier-free communication. Other organizations and institutions are dedicated to the simplification of texts .

The cognitive psychologist George A. Miller already established in 1956 that the information processing limit in our short-term memory is between 7 and 9 words. Longer text overloads memory.

Easy reading relies on central keywords used in a neutral, precise style, close to everyday life, avoiding abstract notions, multiple meanings (polysemy), metaphorical expressions and the passive voice .

When it is impossible to abandon specialized expressions, their explanations are offered. Easy language rejects the use of abbreviations (Avda.), acronyms (ONG) or long subordinate phrases. It is not advisable to use long words ending in -mente (for example: normally), but rather to use the expressions: “normally”. It is not advisable to use the conditional or gerund: “must” is better than “should”.

With these guidelines, the previous legal paragraph would be transformed into the following:
“It is ordered that this sentence be made final immediately and registered in the corresponding Civil Registry. Its annotation will be made in the margin in the marriage registration entry.”

Much more understandable, right?

Visual resources and friendly communication

There are other useful resources for a better understanding of any text: images, bold, color or enlarged font to highlight the central concepts, explanations and clearer writing of paragraphs, pictograms and other textual formats.

All this achieves the simplification of language verbally and visually .

In addition to simplifying lexicon and syntax, more “friendly” communication can be achieved with the use of rhetorical resources and strategies that build a relationship of trust with the reader. For example, using inclusive pronouns, such as “we.”

Thus, it is typical to ask questions in informative texts to establish an interaction between the author and the reader , it helps us get involved in the content and makes communication more effective. They create positivity, involvement and bring the user closer to the author.

Of course, it does not work for all communications. Can you imagine a traffic ticket in a friendly style? It could be something like this:
“Hello intrepid driver! We hope this note finds you well, even though your car was driving a little faster than permitted. We are excited by your enthusiasm to get where you are going! However, we want to remind you that road safety is like a soundtrack: best when kept at a constant pace. On this occasion, we accompany you with the little melody of a traffic ticket. Don’t worry, we all make mistakes. We just want to make sure we continue to live in harmony on the roads. Drive carefully and keep that adventurous spirit in check!”

Legal Accuracy Made Easy

And what happens if we receive a letter from the Treasury or a complaint from a lawyer? The problem when simplifying legal-administrative texts is that we must combine the need to maintain their accuracy with the need to simplify and make clearer the information transmitted by said communication.
“We send you this notification NCC8899020876678899 to carry out the administrative act that, for reasons not attributable to the Administration, could not be carried out through the previous notification with NCC988766578909876, making it impossible to deliver it to the recipient at the address of that notification.” (Communication from the Ministry of Finance)

What the previous paragraph means, once translated, is that they are notifying us for the second time of something that was not received at the time because the recipient was not at home.

It is well known that ignorantia legis non excusat (ignorance of the law does not exempt from responsibility), but, even for native speakers, legal-administrative notification represents a linguistic barrier, not to mention people without higher education and other users. on foot.

This raises the question: who is actually the recipient of such information? It seems obvious that it is intended only for expert people, that is, lawyers, notaries or managers.

An urgent need

There has been talk for some time about modernizing communication in general and democratizing public institutions and legislation . Many authors and groups insist that all citizens have the right to an understandable and accessible formulation of legal-administrative texts, particularly in judicial decisions, the description of means of appeal and laws.

There is an urgent need to apply easy language, especially in legal communication with the average citizen and any user. There is no doubt that the clarity of the texts contributes to their understanding.

Thanks to the Internet, users can obtain additional information and explanations on various issues that concern them. But, unfortunately, the quality of the information leaves much to be desired and its sources are not always accurate and reliable.

Taking into account the recommendations indicated above, it is possible to optimize the flow of information and ensure maximum understanding and assimilation of specialized notions. This, in turn, would improve the credibility and effectiveness of the public sector and administration.

While we achieve this, we can console ourselves with the idea that, at least in Spanish, it is not possible to create compound words as long as in German. In this language there are terms that can have up to 79 letters and consist of up to 11 words together, such as:

Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft (meaning “society of construction officials of the main electricity factory for steamship navigation on the Danube”).

Author Bio: Olga Koreneva Antonova is a Doctoral Assistant, Faculty of Translation/Interpretation, Area of ​​German Philology at Pablo de Olavide University