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  • Is Plain Language the New Newspeak?

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    It may be a bit dramatic to quote the opening of George Orwell’s classic 1984, but there is something quite Orwellian about the effects of H.R.946 – a piece of legislation that passed last year without much division, and that is now back in the headlines.  This law, named the Plain Writing Act, aims to simplify the language used by federal agencies when speaking to American citizens, with the guidance of a new organization: the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).  For anyone who has wrestled with IRS forms or the jargon of the DMV, this may seem like welcome news.  However, the Federal Plain Language Guidelines (unveiled by PLAIN in March), which outline the changes promised by the Plain Writing Act, contain some rather questionable instructions in its 117 pages:

    • “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?

    In addition to this advice, there are scores of pages about using only simple, short words, very basic sentence structure, and clear headings.  While some of these suggestions are undoubtedly helpful, taken as a whole, 117 pages of such guidelines appear to be, first and foremost, rather condescending to the American people.  Using friendly language to explain unconstitutional procedures will not help our current situation.  It only serves to suggest that the federal agencies are not being entirely honest with their citizens – that they are more concerned with how things are presented than what is being presented.  Instead of focusing on actually simplifying the duties and limiting the authority of the federal agencies, it counts using shorter words and a cheerful tone (“Nicespeak”, perhaps?) to describe the convoluted activities of the agencies as a legislative success.

    Besides talking down to the American people, the Plain Writing Act creates a new level of bureaucracy.  The Plain Writing Act goes into full effect this October, and in the next few months, each federal agency will have to have a senior official overseeing “plain writing”, an educative portion devoted to the subject on their website, and employee training underway.  At a time when the majority of Americans are calling for a reduction in the size of government, this is yet another instance of not taking the citizens seriously.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    7 Responses to Is Plain Language the New Newspeak?

    1. ricp, Buffalo, NY says:

      Perhaps you can list the names of all the idiots in the Congress who voted for this one? Is there a follow up bill "The Let's Write All Laws in Crayon" Act to follow?

      We dumb down the schools and now we dumb down the legal language to meet the needs of those standards? When I was in school I was taught the word "will" implied choice whereas the the word "shall" implied an imperative with no choice allowed. As in "you shall comply with this statute"! What will the new language be, "Gee it would be nice if, you know, you could do it!"?

      Next all laws will be published in cartoon form with "Dilbert" expressing the law's intent.

    2. George Colgrove, VA says:

      All this is doing is legislating normal operating procedure for the federal workforce. This is called obfuscation. Every fed practices this in their "work" and in their personal lives. Feds lie and this law simply legalizes it. Everythign the federal workforce does is Orwellian. It is the inherent nature of government that has been in place since the first government was established.

      Obama, as a dictator, and the federal workforce as a blind and loyal mass of drones willing to sacrifice personal integrety (if they had it to start with) work willingly together AT OUR EXPENSE and at the COST OF THE FUTURE of this nation for their personal ends.

      The facts are that the ONLY group of people doing better today than last year (even with a pay freeze) are the federal workers and a few state workers (i.e government) and the ONLY city doing better this year than last is the greater DC area. This is because they extort hard earned cash from defenseless citizens, and what they cannot grab they create out of thin air on the backs of people yet to be born.

      Command the language? It does not suprize me this bill was created and passed and now being implemented. It would also not suprize me that the lion's share of this bill was written by federal workers. They treat us like stupid sheep. But who blaims them, look at what we have allowed them to do since 9/11. Our debt has climbed almost $10 trillion. Now that they have garnished this much power and are now able to successfully turn the tables of elections to keep themselves in power, controling speech to this level becomes a final step.

      We are running out of elections – lets make this next one count!

    3. Ha, Kansas says:

      Keep it up, Heritage. Since you're losing the fight to kill Medicare, you fall back on a tried and true favorite: "The Other," Barack HUSSEIN Obama, is trying to steal your freedom.

      Keep it up…

    4. Dennis Davis Auburn says:

      My question is why do so many Rebublicans in the house, not want to take this President straight on by calling him out as a ratical, communist, who's idea of change is to change this country into a communist economic system.

      Another question is why do so many Rebublicans run from the definition word conservative, because it is a winning platform.

      This is not a question but a observation of the members in Congress an the Senate, they want so much to be liked by the Democrats and to compromise with them. No Democrat wants to be liked by Rebublicans or ever compromises with them. Rebublicans seen to have no backbone, or balls or what ever when it comes to confronting Democrats, why?

    5. Mike K says:

      Okay, so everyone complains that laws and regulations are bureacratic garbage that a college graduate couldn't decipher, then someone comes along and passes a law to fix that – and you complain about that too. The fact is that confusing language wastes time and money, and allows government to hide behind that confusion. I would think you'd support an effort to help things run more smoothly and quickly. If this passed under a Republican administration, you'd hail it as government reform.

    6. Pingback: There’s a New Law. The Federal Government Must Write In “Nicespeak.”. « American Elephants

    7. RLJ says:

      The law is the source of the citizen's rights, duties and obligations. Like it or not, laws are the rules we all live by – including the government. They set out in writing what we are entitled to, what we are required to do and what we cannot do. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could read the laws and understand them, without having to have the government TELL you what they mean or PAY a lawyer to do it?

      I'd say that would be more than merely nice… I'd say I have every RIGHT to be able to read and understand the law!

      It's being done in other countries — Australia, Sweden, Portugal, Canada to name a few. Believe it or not, it can be done without crayons and without $100 words. And it's beautifully clear, and legal.

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