The federal government is rolling out a new official language: plain English.
That’s right: Pursuant to regulations promulgated thereunder and commencing in accordance with a statute signed herein by President Barack Obama, the government shall be precluded from writing the pompous gibberish heretofore evidenced, to the extent practicable.
That sentence contains 11 new language no-nos.
Mr. Obama signed the “Plain Writing Act” last fall after decades of effort by a cadre of passionate federal grammarians to jettison the jargon.
The law takes full effect in October, when federal agencies must start writing plainly in all new or substantially revised documents produced for the public. The government will still be allowed to write nonsensically to itself.
Ahead then, if the law works, is a culture change for an enterprise that turns out reams of confusing benefit forms, tangled rules and foggy pronouncements. Not to mention a Pentagon brownie recipe that went on for 26 pages about “regulations promulgated thereunder,” “flow rates of thermoplastics by extrusion plastometer” and a commandment that ingredients “shall be examined organoleptically.”
That means look at, smell, touch or taste.
By July, each agency must have a senior official overseeing plain writing, a section of its website devoted to the effort and employee training under way.
“It is important to emphasize that agencies should communicate with the public in a way that is clear, simple, meaningful and jargon-free,” said Cass Sunstein, a White House information and regulation administrator who gave guidance to federal agencies in April on how to implement the law.
Bad writing by the government, he said, discourages people from applying for benefits they should get, makes federal rules hard to follow and wastes money because of all the time spent fixing mistakes and explaining things to a baffled populace.
But can clarity and good grammar be legislated?
That remains to be seen. The law lacks teeth. You won’t be able to sue the government for making your head spin after October. And regulations are exempted from the clarity mandate.
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, said 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.
Still, she predicts significant improvement. And she points to successes in Britain, Portugal, South Africa and elsewhere, where governments set out years ago to reinvent their communications with the public. “It’s hard to find a high-level document in Sweden you can’t understand,” she said.
One idea with the plain language law 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.
Begone, too, with “pursuant, “promulgated,” ” thereunder,” “commencing,” “in accordance with,” “herein,” “precluded,” “heretofore,” “evidenced” and “practicable,” to name just a sampling of the no-nos.