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Tell it Plain

Below is Smokey the Bear, no doubt reading plainly written government regulations.

Smokey the Bear at the USDA forestry exhibition in Washington 

The Congress in its wisdom has mandated that Federal employees should write in plain language. This is a great idea, but what does it mean?

I write in a simple way.  I don’t use the passive voice very much.  Most of my sentences are simple noun, verb & object.   I don’t use circumlocutions, but I do use the most appropriate word, for example, “circumlocutions”.   Using that one word avoids having to write two or more sentences.  

Plain writing requires a wide vocabulary. You have to use the words appropriate to the ideas you are trying to express.  Speaking of writing plainly does not mean making it so easy that a fifth-grader can understand.  Some concepts are beyond the understanding of a fifth-grader.     We have education to improve people so that they can indeed understand more.

Lord knows that government writing can be convoluted and confusing.  (Note the use of the word “convoluted”.  That is the best word for this thought.  An easier synonym for convoluted is difficult, but that does not adequately convey my meaning.)  I guess I am afraid that this great idea will be misused by some in the government to dumb-down our writing.    Some overzealous official might strip out words like “circumlocutions”, “convoluted” and … “overzealous”.   That would make my writing more simple-minded, but not simpler and not easier to understand.

There is no small irony in assigning a bureaucratic process to the art of writing.  Bureaucracy is the biggest reason our writing is difficult to understand (note that I did not use the word “opaque”, which was my first thought.  Instead I had to use three words (“difficult to understand”) that do not exactly convey the meaning I had in mind.    Much is lost when writing becomes a lowest common denominator group exercise.  The first goal of bureaucratic language is not to offend anybody, BTW. Conveying meaning is always a subordinated goal.

When I was in Poland, one of my Polish staff wrote a note asking for office supplies.   It was very clear, but also very clearly written by someone whose native language was not English.  The person receiving the request sent it back to me with a snarky comment “Didn’t you edit this.”   I wrote back much more politely, “No, I did not edit it.   I understood what she wanted and so do you.  Just send us the requested supplies and don’t bother me again.”  This was very clear and it caused some consternation among the admin folks.  My boss even called me to caution me about hostility, but they never bothered us again and it was worth it.   Had I knuckled under, I would have empowered the pedants and all of us would have spent many hours rewriting great prose like “Please send five boxes of pencils.” 

Government employees spend an inordinate amount of time on these sorts of things. Life is a lot easier if you just say no.  

And, BTW, the legislation specifically does NOT apply to regulations.  They can remain as opaque as ever, so that ordinary educated people cannot figure them out with any certainty.  I think we call that the "lawyer and bureaucrat full employment act."


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