In a huge victory for the Plain Language Movement – (What?! You’ve never heard of the Plain Language Movement?!) - every U.S. federal agency will now be legally mandated to communicate to the public (us) in “clear, concise, and well-organized” language. Hey, there’s an idea that’s overdue. Seems almost too good to be true.
It’s called the “Plain Writing Act.” Signed last year by President Obama, it goes into full effect October 2011. The stated purpose of this Act is to “improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”
Why didn’t they just say “we’re going to break it down for you, people?”
Goodbye to “shall,” “pursuant, “thereunder,” “promulgated,” “in accordance with,” “commencing,” “herein,” “precluded,” “evidenced” and “heretofore.” Good riddance to all that confounding legalese that politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers cherish, but makes ordinary citizens claw out their own eyeballs.
From now on the government will be called “we” and citizens will be called “you.” Instead of the government saying, “It is requested,” they will now say “please.” The phrase “It is required” will now read “You must.”
Your I.R.S. Notification
This law will apply to all documents that describe government requirements or services such as tax forms, letters, benefits applications, and Medicare and Social Security handbooks. In other words, any stuff you get from the government, and any stuff the government says you owe.
So is this a great leap forward in common-sense communication, or further evidence of the “dumbing down” of the English Language?
Annetta Cheek, chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language and a proud grammarian believes it’s the former: “You can’t really have a democracy if the public doesn’t understand what the government is doing.”
Noted linguist William Lutz who’s literally written the book on “DoubleSpeak,” takes it one step further, comparing “bureaucratese” (or “gobbledygook”) to state-driven mind-control: “Language is power, period. The lesson of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that those who rule the language, rule… The language of the lawyers, of the politicians, of the intelligentsia, is supposed to make one feel inferior.”
For Lutz, this omnipresent doublespeak is done consciously. Whereas the point of language is to communicate and clarify, doublespeak is “the language of deceit” – a manipulative tool used intentionally to miscommunicate, to evade, to obfuscate.
Cass Sunstein, a White House information and regulation administrator, agrees, at least on the goal: “Agencies should communicate with the public in a way that is clear, simple, meaningful and jargon-free.”
Hmm. When White House administrators speak, one has to ask “what’s the real reason?”
Sunstein: “There’s hard evidence that clear communications can improve compliance with rules and reduce errors, thereby lowering enforcement and administrative costs.”
Aha. Compliance and money, of course.
But perhaps there’s a bit of altruism yet in this Act. Annetta Check explains: “Federal writers are not supposed to be creating great literature. You are communicating requirements, how to get benefits, how to stay safe and healthy, and other information to help people in their lives.”
That’s good news, for a change.
Plain Writing Act: Timeline
October 2010 – President Obama Signs Into Law
July 2011 – Deadline for Agencies to have plans in place. Each agency must have
1) an official overseeing plain writing:
2) employee training on how to write without sounding like a pompous bore,
3) a section of its website devoted to communicating plainly…hopefully, with photos.
October 2011 – Act in full effect. All documents produced for the public will now make sense. Democracy served, Republic is saved.
For Further Reading & Information:
Center for Plain Language (“Plain Language is a Civil Right”): http://centerforplainlanguage.org/
Government Plain Language Site: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/
Plain Language International: http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/ (includes links to many in in the Plain Language Movement”
Video interview on “DoubleSpeak” ~ Professor William Lutz: http://www.booknotes.org/Watch/10449-1/William+Lutz.aspx