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.

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In my view, more even than Newspeak, the greatest threat to the English language — indeed to other languages using the Latin script, though with a delay — is the ubiquitous use of the forward slash (/). In recent years it has even infected the writing of the New York Times. But, worse, scientists use it in journal articles, bureaucrats in official reports, and of course people from all walks of life in normal correspondence.

Typically, lazy writers press it into service in place of “and/or”, which as any reader of Strunk & White knows has no place in formal writing. But often people have it stand in for “and” or “or”, or even a comma. Worse, many use the slash to separate two close alternatives, simply because they themselves cannot decide which is the better word. They are saying, in effect, “I can’t decide, dear reader, so please decide for me.”

Ambiguity is created especially when people use the slash with numbers. The convention used to be that “2009/10 referred to a fiscal year. Now one sees people writing 2009/10 to mean the two years, 2009 and 2010. They should, of course, write 2009-10 instead.

One thing I appreciate is that the people who write the blogs on this site also seem to eschew the slash. Keep it up!


Comment by Subsidy Eye

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