Did you know that the US Government has jumped on the simple writing bandwagon?
A few years ago, I heard about an act signed into law by President Obama regarding the use of plain language in federal documents. It is called the Plain Writing Act of 2010 and it was signed on October 13, 2010. The purpose of the law is to mandate the use of clear and simple English writing for all federal agencies.
What I didn’t realize is that a very robust website about the guidelines exists on the internet. It is called plainlanguage.gov and it contains a wealth of information.
Here is the definition of plain language according to plainlanguage.gov:
Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. No one technique defines plain language. Rather, plain language is defined by results—it is easy to read, understand, and use.
You can find all sorts of useful information on the plainlanguage.gov website.
You can download the law itself and supporting executive orders on the use of plain language in regulations:
- Plain Writing Act of 2010
- Executive Order 13563-Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review (2011)
- Executive Order 12866-Regulatory Planning and Review (1993)
- Executive Order 12988-Civil Justice Reform (1996)
The site has many examples of regulatory information, including both before and after plain language versions.
Here are a couple of good ones:
When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.
If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.
This rule proposes the Spring/Summer subsistence harvest regulations in Alaska for migratory birds that expire on August 31, 2003.
This rule proposes the Spring/Summer subsistence harvest regulations for migratory birds in Alaska. The regulations will expire on August 31, 2003.
Also in the examples section is a list of award winners. My favorite award is called the No Gobbledygook award. It was created by Vice President Al Gore. The purpose of the No Gobbledygook award is to recognize federal employees who are innovative in their approach to plain language. Although the title of the award is amusing, the examples of award winners are actually very good. Take a look at this letter from the Veterans Administration about a change in enrollment status. It is very simple and easy to read.
The plainlanguage.gov site is not without its humor. I was very surprised to see an entire section on humorous plain language examples. One of the funniest is called Nine Easy Steps to Longer Sentences, by Kathy McGinty.
It starts with the sentence:
More night jobs would keep youths off the streets.
Through a series of very funny steps, McGinty is able to increase the number of words to almost seven times the original:
There is no escaping the fact that it is considered very important to note that a number of various available applicable studies ipso facto have generally identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could usually keep juvenile adolescents off thoroughfares during the night hours, including but not limited to the time prior to midnight on weeknights and/or 2 a.m. on weekends.
In her words, “And best of all, I’ve accomplished this feat with little or no change in meaning.”
The resources section of the website has a robust list of plain language resources. The list of Great Books About Plain Language is a bit out of date, but contains some useful titles including Doublespeak Defined, by William D. Lutz and Writing in Plain English, by Robert Eagleson.
In addition to books, articles, and journals, you can find information on training courses and materials for trainers. They even run a train-the-trainer bootcamp on plain language writing.
Interesting anecdotal information continues in the quotes section. Here are some selections:
If you find your own writing boring, so will somebody else.
Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book Section, at the NIH Plain Language Award Ceremony.
Clear writing from your government is a civil right.
Former Vice President Al Gore, 1998
If you can’t explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it to any intelligent layman, that really means that you don’t understand it yourself.
Allan Bromley, former President of the American Physical Society
I’m glad that the US Government has realized that the average American cannot read most of the content produced by government agencies. Comparing content created before and after the enactment of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 shows that many of the agencies are doing a good job rewriting information. In a future post, I will examine the details of some sites to see just how plain the English has become.