American Elephants

There’s a New Law. The Federal Government Must Write In “Nicespeak.”. by The Elephant's Child

Last fall, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act (H.R.946) which will take effect in October, when all federal agencies must start writing plainly in all new or substantially revised documents produced for the public. By July, each agency must have a senior official who will oversee plain writing within that agency, a section of its website devoted to the effort, and a training program underway.

This will be hard. Federal employees have long assumed that the use of large words demonstrates the importance of their work. Many have been trained by members of prestigious faculties who write in gibberish themselves as proof that they really do possess advanced degrees.

One of the most famous examples of federal-speak is a Pentagon 26-page recipe for brownies that went on about “regulation promulgated thereunder,” “flow rates of thermoplastics by extrusion plastometer” and a commandment that ingredients “shall be examined organoleptically. (look at, smell, taste or touch).

Cass Sunstein, Obama’s information and regulation administrator, gave some guidance to federal agencies in April on how the law should be implemented: “It is important to emphasize that agencies should communicate with the public in a way that is clear, simple, meaningful and jargon free.” Bad writing, he says keeps people from applying for benefits they should get, makes federal rules hard to follow and wastes money because of all the time spent explaining things to a confused public.

The Federal Plain Language Guidelines, which outline the changes promised by the Act, contain some questionable instructions:

  • “Government” will be changed to “we”, and “citizens” will be replaced by “you” making all instructions seem more good-natured and friendly.
  • “Stuffy” language, such as “pursuant,” “herein,” “in accordance with,” “commencing,” “practicable,” and the most offensive target: “shall,” will be purged.  Apparently we shouldn’t be bothered with three-syllable words.
  • The active voice should always be used, except when “the law” is the actor.  In that case, use of the passive voice will keep citizens from misdirecting their frustration toward the government.
  • [This merits a direct quote]: “We have ONE rule for dealing with definitions: use them rarely.” Will avoiding definitions really make matters more clear to average Americans?
  • As evidenced by the above quote, another tip is to use CAPS LOCK, italics, and bolded font constantly to emphasize your point. Did it work?

There are dozens of pages about using only simple, short words, very basic sentence structure, and clear headings. 117 pages of such guidelines appears fairly condescending to the American people. Friendly language is not going to make unconstitutional procedures acceptable, nor will it convince skeptical citizens that federal agencies are being honest. Aside from talking down the public, the Plain Writing Act creates a new level of bureaucracy. We could call it “Nicespeak.”

As Syme said, describing the definitive Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary:

We’re getting the language into its final shape—the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will  have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.  The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.

…Take ‘good’ for instance.  If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad?’ ‘Ungood’ will do just as well—better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good.’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood” covers the meaning, or ‘double-plusgood’if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by The Elephant's Child
May 30, 2011, 6:27 am
Filed under: Freedom, Heartwarming, History, Military | Tags: , ,


1. How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknowns and why?
21 steps. It alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

2. How long does he hesitate after his about face to begin his return walk and why?
21 seconds for the same reason as answer number one.

3. Why are his gloves wet?
His gloves are moistened to prevent his losing his grip on the rifle.

4. Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time and if not, why not?
He carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb.  After his march across the path, he executes an about face and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.

5.  How often are the guards changed?
Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, and 365 days a year.

6. What are the physical traits of the guard limited to?
A person who applies for guard duty at the tomb must be between 5′ 10″ and 6′ 2″ tall and his waist size cannot exceed 30″.

Other requirements of the Guard: they must commit 2 years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives. They cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform (by fighting) or the tomb in any way.  After two years, the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on their lapel signifying they served as guard of the tomb.  There are only 400 presently worn.

The guard must obey these rules for the rest of their lives or give up the wreath pin.

The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet.  There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt.  There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform.  Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror.

During the first six months of duty a guard may not talk to anyone, nor watch TV. Off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.  A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred.  Among the notables are: President Taft, Joe E. Lewis (the boxer) and Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy, (the most decorated soldier of WWII) of Hollywood fame.  Every guard spends five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.


In 2003 as Hurricane Isabelle was approaching Washington D.C., our U.S. Senate and House took 2 days off in anticipation of the storm.  On the ABC evening news, it was reported that because of the dangers from the hurricane, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend their assignment.   They respectfully declined the offer, “No way, Sir!”  Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment; it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a service person.

The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930.

One tomb is empty: the Vietnam Tomb.  It was later discovered who was in the tomb.  The family had the remains removed and buried with military honors. Congress decided to leave the tomb empty.  Fox News carried the full live service at the tombs.  The other channels passed it by.  All who have served understand the bond.  Freedom is never free.

R. Harper

This is a re-post from Memorial Day, 2009.

We Remember Them All, From All The Wars. by The Elephant's Child
May 30, 2011, 6:14 am
Filed under: Freedom, History, Military, Politics | Tags: , ,

Filed under: Freedom, History, Military, The Elephant’s Child | Tags: , ,

There is a story my mother told to me, and her grandfather told to her.  When he was small — about my mother’s age at the time — he was sitting at his grandmother’s knee.  She told him the story of the time when she was small, and about his age, in Connecticut.  It was a beautiful spring day,  her father was plowing, and she was walking in the furrow behind him, smelling the sweet earth as the plow turned the soil.

They heard the sound of a horse galloping up the lane, and a man shouting.  Her father dropped the reins of his horse and ran for the house. Catherine gathered up her skirts and ran after him.  She met him at the door, his musket in hand.  He gathered her up and kissed her goodbye and ran for his horse.  He was a Captain of Minute Men.  The British were raiding.  She never saw her father again.  They brought his body  home after the battle.

Men have been dying for freedom and home, their comrades, and friends and family for a very long time.  Today we remember them all, from all the wars, with sorrow and gratitude.

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