June 2019

The International Plain Language Federation’s efforts to establish an international, multi-language, plain language standard took one giant step forward in Ottawa, Canada during the week of June 23, 2019. There, a proposal for a plain language standard was considered as part of a week-long meeting of Technical Committee 37 (TC 37) of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The proposal ― instigated by the International Plain Language Federation―was put to the ISO by Standards Australia.

At the Ottawa meeting’s closing session on June 28, 2019. TC 37’s steering committee announced that it had agreed that Standards Australia’s proposal to develop an international standard for plain language could go forward for a vote of all the Committee’s members.

TC 37’s vote on the proposal is open until September 25, 2019. This gives each relevant country’s standards organisation time to properly consider, and consult about, the proposal before voting.

We expect to announce the result of the vote at PLAIN’s 2019 in Oslo, Norway on September 25–27, 2019. (you can read an update here).

Given the discussion at TC 37’s Ottawa meeting, we expect a yes vote. But one never knows. Even so, we are told that if the result is negative, we will likely be able to refine the proposal and resubmit it for another vote.

Please consider contacting the standards organisation in your country and encouraging it to vote yes. For your country’s standards organisation to be able to vote, it needs to be a Participating Member of TC 37. You can check whether it is here. If you’re country’s standards organisation:

  • is a TC 37 Participating Member, then you can click on your country’s name in the list to find the contact details for its standards organisation; or
  • is not a TC 37 Participating Member, then you can find your country’s standards organisation here (if it is a member of ISO) and encourage it to become a TC 37 Participating Member. The committee welcomes new Participating Members.

The more TC 37 Participating Members who are engaged in developing the plain language standard, the more likely ISO is to develop a standard that works in as many languages, and as many countries, as possible. Each country will be able to adapt the standard to suit its needs. Whether a person or organisation decides to follow a standard is up to them.


The relevant ISO committee is Technical Committee 37, (TC 37) which handles standards for “language and terminology”. Over the last week in June 2019, it had its annual standards development meeting in Ottawa, Canada. Each year, as part of that meeting, TC 37 holds a forum at which people can propose a new standard. The process is formal ― though the “vibe” is less so. A proposal has a much greater chance of success if it is put forward by a country’s standards organisation.

Originally, the Federation had sought to develop a standard through Standards Australia. Once completed for Australia, the Standard could then be adopted or adapted by individual countries.

However, earlier this year, we (the chair of the Federation, Annetta Cheek, and the chair of the Federation’s Standards Committee, Christopher Balmford) had a useful discussion with TC 37’s chair and other officeholders. In light of that discussion, the Federation proposed to Standards Australia that it initiate an ISO New Work Item Proposal to TC 37 for the committee to develop a standard for plain language. This change was in part made to facilitate other countries being able to adopt the standard more easily and with less effort.

Standards Australia agreed to the Federation’s proposal and appointed Christopher as its representative to make the pitch on Standards Australia’s behalf. On Sunday, June 23, 2019 at TC 37’s forum, Annetta introduced Christopher and gave background on the Federation. Christopher then proposed the plain language standard on Standards Australia’s behalf.

During the week of the meeting, there was much informal discussion about the proposed standard ― in particular, about how it related to the Committee’s other work. Also, TC 37 held an hour-long “question and answer” information session about the proposal. Although the session was one of several other important sessions on at the same time, 20 people (out of about 90 at the meeting) from about 16 countries attended. They asked good and probing questions.

On Friday, June 28, 2019 at the meeting’s closing plenary, TC 37 announced approval for the proposal for a plain language standard to go to a ballot of all TC 37 participating member countries — including those not represented at the meeting in Ottawa.

Thanks to . . .

Our deep thanks to:

  • Laurent Romary, Germany, Chair TC 37; Changqing Zhou, China, Committee Manager TC 37; Sue Ellen Wright, US, Chair TC 37 Sub Committee 3; Maryse Benhoff, Canada, Chair TC 37 Sub Committee 5; Walter Laserer, Austria, Committee Manager, TC 37 SC 5 ― for their active, encouraging support;
  • Gael Spivak, Canada, for introducing us to TC 37;
  • Gael (again) and Nicole Fernbach for their support at the meeting ― they were each attending as members of TC 37 or one of its sub-committees;
  • Neidra Motha, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Standards Australia for her cheerful help on many fronts ― in particular, guiding the Federation’s proposal through Standards Australia, and on to the ISO, in a genuinely tight timeframe;
  • The people in the plain language world who, in the build up to the Ottawa meeting, helped encourage the standards organisation in their country to support the proposed plain language standard. During the week of the Ottawa meeting, it became increasingly clear that much of that work had been successful; and
  • Everyone who has ever organised, volunteered at, spoken at, or attended a plain language conference. Without a doubt, the momentum those conferences generated was instrumental in getting us to where we are.

Lastly, throughout the process it’s been wonderful to enjoy the support and collaboration of members of Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center.

To find out how you can be involved, read here.