Comprehension of Legal Contracts by Non-Experts: Effectiveness of Plain Language Redrafting, Michael E J Masson & Mary Anne Waldron, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 8, pp. 67-85 (1994).
Plain Language Contracts and Reader Comprehension, Michael E J Masson & Mary Anne Waldron, Proceedings: Just Language Conference 1992, The Plain Language Institute, Vancouver.
Masson and Waldron’s research answers some questions about the link between plain language and comprehension. It also raises a number of important issues which need further investigation.
Masson and Waldron wanted to answer three questions about plain language:
1. The original document
2. The original document with archaic terms (eg hereinafter) removed or replaced
3. Like version 2 but with the following changes:
- Long sentences broken up into shorter sentences
- Passive voice replaced with active voice
- Difficult words replaced with simpler words
- References to contracting parties (mortgagor, mortgagee) replaced with “you “ and “we”.
4. Like version 3 but with all legal terms replaced or explained.
Masson and Waldron tested each document in three different ways:
The results split the document into two groups: Versions 1 & 2 and Versions 3 & 4. Versions 1 & 2 (original and archaic terms removed) showed similar poor results in the comprehension testing, for paraphrasing, yes/no questions and long answer questions. Versions 3 & 4 (plain language and legal terms explained) had similar and significantly better results in the comprehension testing.
In other words, the change which most effectively increased reader comprehension was Version 3 with these features:
Replacing words is not enough
Masson and Waldron concluded that:
Issues raised by study
Despite this, Masson and Waldron’s research raises two main issues which need further empirical treating to resolve.
The first problem is with the second step in Masson and Waldron’s study, which produced Version 3. This step involved four changes to the documents, while the other steps involved only one change. Version 3 involved two changes to sentence structure (shorter sentences and active sentences) and two types of word replacement (simpler words and references to “you” and “we”).
The effect of grammatical changes
From the research provided by Masson and Waldron it is impossible to separate the effects of each of the four changes in Version 3. Although they dismiss the effect of simple word replacement, the most effective change involved two types of word replacement. It is useful to know that at least one of the changes in Version 3 is effective in increasing readers’ comprehension, but we still do not know which.
Further research needs to be done which separates the effects of word replacement and the effects of grammatical changes. We need to test the effects of different types of grammatical changes, including passive to active voice, shortening sentences, removing embedded clauses and avoiding abstract subjects.
Plain language is not just words
The second issue raised by this research involves issues of design. None of the versions produced by Masson and Waldron involved any changes to design features, such as typeface, justification, use of white space, structure of paragraphs, or the order in which information is presented.
We need to make sure that these design issues are recognised as an important part if the plain language process. We must also empirically test all the language and design changes that can make a document plain. However, Masson and Waldron’s study is an important piece of research. It shows that the language changes advocated by proponents of plain language have a significant effect on comprehension. But we still need more research to isolate which changes have most effect.