Feds must stop writing gibberish under new law

Published 6:58 pm Thursday, May 19, 2011

The federal government is rolling out a new official language of sorts: plain English.

That’s right: Pursuant to regulations promulgated thereunder and commencing in accordance with a statute signed herein by President Barack Obama, the government shall be precluded from writing the pompous gibberish heretofore evidenced, to the extent practicable.

That sentence contains 11 new language no-nos.

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Obama signed the Plain Writing Act last fall after decades of effort by a cadre of passionate grammarians in the civil service to jettison the jargon.

It takes full effect in October, when federal agencies must start writing plainly in all new or substantially revised documents produced for the public. The government will still be allowed to write nonsensically to itself.

Ahead then, if the law works, is a culture change for an enterprise that turns out reams of confusing benefit forms, tangled rules and foggy pronouncements. Not to mention a Pentagon brownie recipe that went on for 26 pages about “regulations promulgated thereunder,” “flow rates of thermoplastics by extrusion plastometer” and a commandment that ingredients “shall be examined organoleptically.”

That means look at, smell, touch or taste.

By July, each agency must have a senior official overseeing plain writing, a section of its website devoted to the effort and employee training under way.

“It is important to emphasize that agencies should communicate with the public in a way that is clear, simple, meaningful and jargon-free,” says Cass Sunstein, a White House information and regulation administrator who gave guidance to federal agencies in April on how to implement the law.

Bad writing by the government, he says, discourages people from applying for benefits they should get, makes federal rules hard to follow and wastes money because of all the time spent fixing mistakes and explaining things to a baffled populace.

Can clarity and good grammar be legislated?

That remains to be seen. The law lacks teeth. You won’t be able to sue the government for making your head spin after October. And regulations are exempted.

Annetta Cheek, a leader of the plain language movement for much of her 27-year career in government and now chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language, says the impulse to be vague and officious is hard to overcome because federal employees tend to write with their bosses and agency lawyers in mind, not the public.

Still, she predicts significant improvement. And she points to successes in Britain, Portugal, South Africa and elsewhere, where governments set out years ago to reinvent their communications with the public. “It’s hard to find a high-level document in Sweden you can’t understand,” she says.

Cheek was one of the authors of the government’s guidelines for plain writing, surely one of the breeziest federal documents around. It’s packed with dos and don’ts for the coming transformation.

“Federal writers are not supposed to be creating great literature,” the guidelines say. “You are communicating requirements, how to get benefits, how to stay safe and healthy, and other information to help people in their lives.

“While there is no problem with being expressive, most federal writing has no place for literary flair. People do not curl up in front of the fire with a nice federal regulation to have a relaxing read.”

It might be a friendlier read.

In one striking change, the government is becoming “we” and citizens are becoming “you.”

So expect fewer statements like this:

“Before an individual can be determined eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance, it must be established that the individual is not eligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits.”

And more like this:

“You can get financial help from Disaster Unemployment Assistance if your job was lost or interrupted as a direct result of a major disaster declared by the president of the United States.”

Instead of this advice:

“Timely preparation, including structural and non-structural mitigation measures to avoid the impacts of severe winter weather, can avert heavy personal, business and government expenditures. Experts agree that the following measures can be effective in dealing with the challenges of severe winter weather.”

Expect more like this advice:

“Severe winter weather can be extremely dangerous. Consider these safety tips to protect your property and yourself.”

Instead of the government saying, “It is requested,” expect the government to say “please.”

“It is required” is becoming “You must.” This is a favorite of the Internal Revenue Service. One of its account notices has been revised so that it now strikes completely comprehensible terror in the recipient. “What you need to do immediately,” it says.

The effort to have the government make more sense in its public dealings gained traction during the Clinton administration when Vice President Al Gore took on the task of “reinventing government.” Cheek, a writer of federal regulations, became the chief plain language expert on Gore’s team as it spread the gospel agency by agency, making incremental inroads until Obama signed the law.

“Most of what the government writes has too much stuff,” she says. People just want to know, “What are you doing for me today?” Or, TO me.

The idea now is to purge a long list of words, phrases and grammatical practices that governments and lawyers love, and ordinary people don’t. “Shall” is a prime target. It’s seen as stuffy and obsolete.

Begone, too, with “pursuant, “promulgated,” “ thereunder,” “commencing,” “in accordance with,” “herein,” “precluded,” “heretofore,” “evidenced” and “practicable,” to name just a sampling of the no-nos.

Some of the revisions are downright chatty.

“Cook the stuffing separately — it’s MUCH safer!” the government says in turkey guidance reworked in the Clinton era. “Measure the temperature of both the turkey and stuffing! Don’t just trust a pop-up indicator!”

Do not expect “LOL” from the feds anytime soon. Especially, of course, at the IRS.


Federal plain language guidelines: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/bigdoc/fullbigdoc.pdf

Center for Plain Language: http://centerforplainlanguage.org