Is Plain Language the New Newspeak?

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“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.

Source material can be found at this site.

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