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Keeping it plain

May 19, 2011 - Marguerite Lanthier
The federal government is trying to make documents simper and easier for us to understand. Hemingway would be ecstatic. With the implementation of the Plain Writing Act, which was signed into law last fall, by October all government documents have to be written in plain text, according to a story on the Associated Press. In one change, the government is becoming “we” and citizens are becoming “you.” The idea now is to purge a long list of words, phrases and grammatical practices that governments and lawyers love, and ordinary people don’t. “Shall” is a prime target. It’s seen as stuffy and obsolete and shall no longer be used. Other lawyer loving words like “pursuant,” “promulgated,” “thereunder,” “commencing,” “in accordance with,” “herein,” “precluded,” “heretofore,” “evidenced” and “practicable,” could also be gone, according to the story. But keeping something simple is actually very hard. Dr. Suess books read like the a child wrote them because the author spent a lot of time making them simple. He reportedly took nine months to write the “Cat in the Hat,” which has only 236 different words (1629 total), after a friend challenged him to write a book filled with words most 6 and 7-year-olds could recognize. Annetta Cheek, a leader of the plain language movement for much of her 27-year career in government and now chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language, says the impulse to be vague and officious is hard to overcome because federal employees tend to write with their bosses and agency lawyers in mind, not the public, according to the AP story. “Federal writers are not supposed to be creating great literature,” the guidelines say. “You are communicating requirements, how to get benefits, how to stay safe and healthy, and other information to help people in their lives. “While there is no problem with being expressive, most federal writing has no place for literary flair. People do not curl up in front of the fire with a nice federal regulation to have a relaxing read.” Well, not unless they are having trouble sleeping. The effort to have the government make more sense in its public dealings gained traction during the Clinton administration when Vice President Al Gore took on the task of “reinventing government.” Cheek, a writer of federal regulations, became the chief plain language expert on Gore’s team as it spread the gospel agency by agency, making incremental inroads until Obama signed the law. “Most of what the government writes has too much stuff,” she says. People just want to know, “What are you doing for me today?” Or, TO me. They don’t want a 26-page brownie recipe, one of the documents cited in the AP story as an example of excessive government writing. Of course keeping it simple will not be so easy because the government is involved. There is the aforementioned Center for Plain Language, which is another government agency. And by July, each government agency will have to have a senior official overseeing plain writing, a section of its website devoted to the effort and employee training under way.



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