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The plain language movement

Michael G. Williams

Created date

August 14th, 2010

[caption id="attachment_13508" align="alignleft" width="620" caption="Example sentence from a company s style manual for vendors. Original: It is suggested that the wire should be connected to the terminal by the engineer when the switch-box assembly is completed. Revised: We suggest that you connect the wire to the terminal when you finish assembling the switch-box."][/caption] To most, they re perfectly acceptable words and expressions hereafter, forthwith, pursuant to, notwithstanding but to Annetta Cheek, they re like fingernails on a chalkboard. After 25 years in the federal government, she s all too familiar with phrases that muddy the English language. In nearly every agency that she worked, from the National Park Service to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), government documents mired her in political jargon and bureaucratic doubletalk that required a specialist to understand what it meant. Then in the late 1980s, Cheek had what she describes as an Ah ha! moment. One day a friend of mine in a different agency came to me and said, Look at what we have developed with the help of a contractor, she recalls. It was a regulation about offshore oil, and though it was very technical, I could understand it after one reading. I thought to myself, All government policy should be written this way! An anthropologist by training, Cheek spent the next 15 years cementing her interest in what would gradually become a plain language movement. She took courses in clear writing and immersed herself in the theoretical underpinnings championed by literary greats like George Orwell, whose Politics and the English Language (1946) highlights serial abuses of the written word. Soon she was teaching others what she had learned through the Plain Language Action and Information Network, a training resource she created for federal employees. Clear communication, however, was too important to confine to the halls of government.

Branching out

As Cheek and her colleagues saw it, people living in a democracy have a right to understand the policies and benefits that affect them, and in 2003, they founded the nonprofit Center for Plain Language to spread the word. Based in Washington, D.C., the nation s leading producer of unreadable gobbledygook, the Center s mission is as clear and concise as the writing it promotes: make government and business documents understandable. In the years since, the organization has served as an advocate for plain language training in the public and private sectors, and as a clearing house for best practices. The solution seems simple enough. Writers should craft their material with the reader in mind, keep their sentences and word choice simple, and only provide the information that audiences need to know. These techniques help to avoid that heavy writing style that leaves readers confused and policymakers unaccountable. Still, Cheek, who s currently the Center s chairperson, says that it s a firmly planted problem with deep roots. Back in the Clinton Administration, I tried to get the White House to adopt a plain language style manual for executive orders, which are highly bureaucratic and difficult to understand, she remembers. While I had the support of some in the Administration, the attorney in charge of reviewing executive orders told me, We can t write them in plain language because it doesn t sound magisterial enough. So what exactly is magisterial ? Cheek says it s words like shall and in accordance with, far cries from their clearer equivalents must and under. Search any executive order and you re bound to find plenty of examples. Bill Clinton s Executive Order 12958, for instance, uses shall 158 times and in accordance with 13. The fundamental purpose of writing is to communicate, so what good is something that few can understand? Cheek asks rhetorically. When I worked for the FAA in 2001, I ran a plain language focus group for highly experienced commercial pilots, who said, We know you think we understand your regulations, but we don t.

Clear benefits

On the other hand, those agencies that have dared to dabble in the humbler prose of plain language have reaped its benefits. When the Veterans Administration office in Jackson, Miss., rewrote its benefits letter, calls from confused beneficiaries fell from 91 a month to just 16. Similarly, a private sector financial services company that rewrote its customer service documents in plain language saw a 61% increase in satisfaction. Cheek notes that the Internal Revenue Service, the Security and Exchange Commission, and the Department of the Interior have also joined the plain language movement, but agencies such as the Departments of Labor, Commerce, and Justice seem wholly unaware of it. She hopes that it s only a matter of time before they wake up. At the Center for Plain Language, we re trying to raise public awareness about the fact that people don t have to accept this horrible writing from government and private organizations, says Cheek. She urges those committed to clear writing to log on, where they can sign a petition to make plain language the norm. American citizens deserve no less. You can visit the Center for Plain Language online