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Writers Talk About Writing

Plain English: It's the Law

In 1998 Pres. Bill Clinton sent a memorandum to federal agencies telling them "the Federal Government's writing must be in plain language." Twelve years later the plain language policy became the law. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 seeks "to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly," and requires federal agencies to "use plain writing in every covered document of the agency that the agency issues or substantially revises." Legislators could have said all that more clearly, with fewer words, and in the active voice, but they felt no need to follow the plain language guidelines the law calls for.

The Plain Writing Act is well intentioned. Too much public writing — that includes government, business, and legal writing — is confusing and disorganized. But the law can't work, because language can't be legislated. Also, it's impossible to construct a formula to guarantee that readers will understand a text.

The Plain Writing Act mandates that federal agencies follow a set of Plain Language Guidelines, and these guidelines offer some sound advice: tell readers what they need to know in language they can understand; design documents for easy reading; use headings, tables, and charts to simplify complex material.

The advice on readability is sound as well. The guidelines reject the simplistic notion that writing should be understandable to the average thirteen year old. Instead, writers should pitch their document at a level that is appropriate for the intended audience:

Don't write for an 8th grade class if your audience is composed of PhD candidates, small business owners, working parents or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th grade class.

The general advice in the guidelines is good, but they also say things about language that are subjective, contradictory, or just plain wrong. For example, the guidelines tell us "Verbs are the fuel of writing," but any decent writer knows it's coffee and cigarettes.

We're also told, "The simplest and strongest form of a verb is present tense." Unfortunately, there's no way to prove this claim: how do you measure simple? how do you measure strong?

In the section on contractions, the Plain Language Guidelines advise, "Write as you talk." Too bad they didn't think of this when they drafted their advice on verb tense. Speakers of English use the present progressive, not the simple present, for things happening in the here and now:

not, He breaks the law.
but, He is breaking the law.

Predictably, the guidelines say to use the active voice, which they define as a form of the verb to be plus a past participle. But their advice about the active voice contains a passive construction:

Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what.

That's not a problem, because who is supposed to do what is passive in form, but active in meaning — it's the equivalent of who must do what. But instead of using a lot of non-plain language to explain that, the guidelines move on to tell us when it's O.K. to use the passive:

when one action follows another as a matter of law, and there is no actor (besides the law itself) for the second action, a passive sentence may be the best method of expression. . . . For example: If you do not pay the royalty on your mineral production, your lease will be terminated.

Got that? It's the law that's terminating your lease, not some unfeeling civil servant hiding behind the passive voice. If you drive too fast, too often, and your license is suspended, it's the law that's taking your driving privilege away, not some political hack of a traffic court judge.

The guidelines' definition of the active voice causes more problems than it solves, which is not surprising because it turns out that the plain language guidelines don't like definitions. Writers are told to avoid them, because,

Definitions often cause more problems than they solve.

It turns out that the Plain Writing Act violates this principle as well: it has a whole section of definitions, including a definition of plain writing:

Sec. 3(3) PLAIN WRITING. — The term "plain writing" means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

Here's a bit of plain language advice that will surprise writers whose teachers have told them over and over again to vary their word choice: the plain language guidelines recommend that you use the same word over and over:

Don't feel that you need to use synonyms to make your writing more interesting. Federal writers are not supposed to be creating great literature.

That's because federal writing is supposed to be clear, not interesting: "While using different words may make writing more interesting, it may decrease clarity." Spoken like a true civil servant, but even federal writers with art history degrees know the main reason that readers stop reading is lack of interest.

Continuing in the spirit of lawmakers ignoring their own recommendations, there's the verb shall. The guidelines tell us,

"Shall" is one of those officious and obsolete words that has encumbered legal style writing for many years. The message that "shall" sends to the audience is, "this is deadly material." "Shall" is also obsolete. When was the last time you heard it used in everyday speech?

In the Plain Writing Act of 2010, that's when, where shall occurs nine times. But the Plain Language Guidelines say, "delete every shall." It's a self-breaking law.

And that's O.K., because the Plain Writing Act is also self-annihilating. The law carries within it provisions to make it literally unenforceable. The law is not subject to judicial review, and violating it—which includes use of the word shall—carries no penalties:

There shall be no judicial review of compliance or noncompliance with any provision of this Act. . . . No provision of this Act shall be construed to create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable by any administrative or judicial action. [P.L. 111-274 6(a)-(b)]

But even if violations carried fines or jail time, plain writing won't lead to clearer government communications. Anyone who's grappled with income tax instructions lately knows that, four years on, the Plain Writing Act hasn't made federal regulations any clearer.

The guidelines have one last bit of sound advice that every writer should follow, even the writers of the guidelines: see what your document or website looks like by testing it—

Testing your documents should be an integral part of your plain-language planning and writing process, not something you do after the fact to see if your document (or your website) is a success. It�s especially important if you�re writing to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.

That, in a nutshell, or a screenshot, epitomizes what happens when you pass laws telling writers what to do.

Always test your document
Screenshot of the page recommending that writers test their documents and websites
early, and often, something the writers at plainlanguage.gov clearly failed to do.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.