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656 reviews
3,162 helpful votes
The US Government has been trying to introduce clear language into its documents since the early '90s and is still at it, introducing further legislation and admonishing its departments to stop confusing us with labyrinthine jargon-filled sentences. The concept was introduced in the UK at around the same time, and as I remember, it had marked success in improving leaflets and forms. I get the feeling that the US is struggling with this one, still.

Look for example at the blurb advertising the next monthly meeting of the committee which runs this outfit, and which states "People should understand what we write the first time they read it".

The subject is "Teaching Plain Language to People who Must Interpret Events for Others"

and the description is:

"How to use verbs, nouns, patterns, tense, and bottom line up front to convey to your reader what happened, who made it happen, why it is significant, and where it occurred on the timeline."

Now I researched "bottom line up front" and found no single, clear definition of either the first or second part of the phrase, which I don't understand in this context, myself. Yet one of the root concepts of plain language is that a phrase must be unambiguous and understandable on the first reading.

Moving along, another root concept and instruction to departments is that they should never use several words in a complicated phrase, when less words, put more simply, are better. For example, "when it happened" is probably better than "where it occurred on the timeline."

The subsequent directions to the meeting include "Follow the sign saying public inspection to enter the lobby", which I agree, is simple language. But ... oh, well, maybe I just learned to write so long ago, that people don't do it that way any more.

This is a site aimed not at the public, but at the writers and editors of governmental material, so it really should be a showcase for the ideas it's selling. But it's not well designed for reading, it uses a system of fixed-size popup windows that isn't suited to the content, and not all of the content is even there. The text is generally too small and the whole thing feels dull, dated and uncared-for.

External agencies seem to do a lot better, with some states and counties really working hard at this one. The County of Los Angeles, for example, has an excellent ten-point guide that's printed in large, easy-to-read type, covers all the main points and only takes up one page.

This is a worthy cause, but it's also a complex and sensitive one, and it involves federal, state and county governments which all have their own financial and resource issues and agendas. And although I didn't see it mentioned, because officially "plain language" and "plain English" are synonymous, the USA is faced with Spanish becoming a more widespread second language and in many places, a first language in the next few years.

By the turn of the half-century, it's expected that Spanish speakers will equal or outnumber English speakers, and that's a situation that none of these "plain English" schemes can handle. Demasiado pequeño, demasiado tarde, as I think they say in Mexico. And California, Texas, Arizona, Florida ...
106 reviews
541 helpful votes
Making writing clearer and simpler is a worthy cause. Think of all the wasted hours, frustration, and mistakes that result around the world from people trying to decipher poorly written instructions, contracts, and emails. We could all get better.

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