by Shelley Egan, Egan Editing
Shelley Egan is an editor and proofreader
who specializes in fiction and copy editing.
Before starting her own business, eganediting.com,
she edited Hansard transcripts and taught ESL.
The COVID-19 virus has caused global upheaval and uncertainty. Misinformation is widespread, and messaging changes as more is learned about the virus. For accurate and timely information, Canadians have been urged to consult the Government of Canada (GC) website, as well as provincial websites.1
The Canada.ca Content Style Guide requires the use of plain language for GC web content and notes, “Using plain language … makes critical information accessible and readable for everyone.”2 The reference to “everyone” is interesting because almost half of Canadians have “literacy challenges.”3
Web content assessment
As an editor and former ESL instructor, I wondered about the accessibility of the GC text. The sample I examined appears on a COVID-19 FAQ page, under “Preventing coronavirus.”4
I used one of many online plain-language checklists to examine the text. Kate Harrison Whiteside (PlainLanguageAcademy.com) notes, “Checklists are important in covering the many components that make a message clear.”
Regarding language, the sample is in active voice, and there is just one idea per paragraph. However, some sentences have more than 20 words. The vocabulary could be simplified by replacing “dispose of” with “throw away,” “waste basket” with “garbage,” and “avoid touching” with “before you touch,” for example. The writing is formal rather than friendly, and the second person ("you") could be used more often to address the reader directly: “You can help reduce the risk of infection…” and “When you cough or sneeze.…” The sample’s Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is at the post-secondary level: 42.2 or “difficult to read.”
In terms of organization, the heading “Hygiene” is one of four subheads under the heading “Preventing coronavirus.” The heading is followed by the main purpose, and a bulleted list groups the information, which is all required. However, the structure of the second bullet point —an introductory-phrase stem followed by main clauses in sub-bullets—could confuse. The use of all lower case and the lack of end punctuation also make it difficult to identify sentences.
With respect to accessibility, the font size is easy to read, and the white space is ample. The left margin is justified, and the right is ragged. However, black text, rather than grey, would be easier to read.
My analysis of the GC sample text revealed that many Canadians would have difficulty accessing this important information on COVID-19 because the reading level is too high, despite the Canada.ca Content Style Guide requirement that “content intended for general audiences” should be at “grade 8 or lower.”5 User testing may not have been carried out on the text sample, and the need to post information quickly is understandable. However, user feedback could have resulted in adjustments to the language and to the organization, making it more “accessible and readable for everyone.”
Health Canada – Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Canada.ca Content Style Guide–Plain Language (from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat)
(accessed April 14, 2020)
/canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 8, 2020)
/canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 1, 2020)
/prevention-risks.html#p(accessed April 8, 2020)
5. /canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 15, 2020)
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