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Keep It Simple, Stupid – and understandable

Submitted by on Thursday, 12 February 2009 No Comment

Did you hear the one about the lawyer who wants to make government documents more understandable?

No, really, it’s true. From a man who practices the art of parsing what the definition of what “is” is and where comma placement can turn an entire decision comes a bill so stunningly sensible it’s a shame a law is even needed.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat, is taking his second run at Plain Language in Government Communications Act.

Last year’s version, HR 3548, passed the  House with 32 co-sponsors and only one opposing vote – Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. Have fun with that one.

The text of this year’s version, HR 946, isn’t available yet, but it likely will be similar.

Just in case the bureaucrats aren’t clear as to what Braley is getting at, the bill gives definitions.

“The term ‘plain language’ means language that the intended audience can readily understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain language writing.”

The introduction to this year’s bill weighs in at a 12.8-grade reading level – for a government document, that’s practically “See Jane run.,”

Braley had support from some agencies last year, including the Securities and Exchange Commission. The land of the dense corporate reports is the last place you’d expect to find a fan of the KISS principle, but then-SEC Chairman Christopher Cox was a true believer.

“The very first reported appearance of the word ‘gobbledygook’ was in 1944, when it was coined by a Congressman actually named Maverick,” Cox testified to a subcommittee. “U.S. Representative Maury Maverick was a Texas Democrat who wrote a memo that banned all ‘gobbledygook language’ from his office.”

Maverick’s term caught on, but his message didn’t.

Which led us to where we are today, with documents from Washington on down loaded with gobbledygook like this:

  • “Resolution approving the Draft Final Noise Compatibility Program and supporting documentation for the Modesto City-County Airport Part 150 Noise Compatibility Study, and authorizing the City Manager, or his designee, to execute the Sponsor’s Certification document recommended.”
  • “Resolution Receiving Actual Cost Information in Connection with the Sale and Issuance of San Francisco Unified School District (City and County of San Francisco, California) (Proposition A, Election of 2006), General Obligation Bonds, Series B (2009) and Authorizing the Submission of such Actual Cost Information to the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission.”
  • “Requests for disability related modifications or accommodations shall be made 24 hours before the meeting to the Board Secretariat at …”

What can’t they just say: “If you’re disabled and need help, call Betty Smith a day before the meeting”?

They can’t do that because any tendency to write or speak in plain English is beaten out of them. It’s not unheard of for professors to order rewrites of papers to “make them more professional-sounding.” “What’s wrong with making it understandable?” a grad student once asked. She still had to rewrite the paper.

Somewhere along the line, people fall in love with the idea that big words make them sound smart. That starts happening at a very early age, too. Big Guy ran into the word “meanwhile” last week, and he’s used it all the time since. Gotta show off what he knows!

That’s understandable for a 5-year-old. It’s not, though, for an adult working on the taxpayer dime and producing verbal pollution that hides what’s going on from the public.

Add to that the need no profession can seem to resist: The urge to coin insider terms so no one else knows what you’re talking about.

Revenue streams. Pupil personnel services. Waste-water treatment facilities. Sanitary landfills.

It’s all a bunch of effluent.

I am willing to do my part to help, though.

Requests for tutorials in best-practice usage of the English language in order to facilitate better discourse with the target audience and impacted stakeholders may be made by contacting Debra Legg at …

Or you can just call me.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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