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  • Reinventing English: Why plain language isn't so simple

    Almost a decade ago Bill Clinton and Al Gore ordered the federal government to begin communicating with Americans in plain English.  All government documents created after Oct. 1, 1998, had to use easy words and short sentences, plus pronouns like you and the active voice.  Agencies were given three years to rewrite all their old documents in plain English as well. 

    If my recent struggle with IRS Form 1040 is any example, that directive, like the Clinton administration’s other attempts to reinvent government, institute universal health care, decriminalize military homosexuality, or get anything done at all, failed miserably.  Perhaps it was the Republican Congress, not the English language, that tripped them up, but then again, Clinton wasn’t even sure what the meaning of a simple word like “is” is.

    Now Los Angeles County has jumped aboard the “plain language” bandwagon, spending over $200,000 on a computer program to make its documents easier to read.  But the LA initiative, like its federal predecessor, is doomed to fail.

    Most writers, except for the occasional avant garde poet, want to be understood.  Even government officials see the advantage of clarity, so long as they’re not testifying before a grand jury.  The problem is that clarity is dependent on context.  It can’t be produced by a formula taken from a plain English handbook.  Even the federal government acknowledges this: “No one technique defines plain language.  Rather, plain language is defined by results.”  Kind of like Potter Stewart’s comment on pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description . . . but I know it when I see it.”  Of course the Supreme Court, in 1964, had yet to embrace plain English.

    But that’s O.K., because even the four keystones of plain English don’t guarantee comprehension.  Using simple, everyday words may sound like a recipe for clarity.  But in the 1930’s, the philosopher C. K. Ogden put together a set of 850 words -- he called them Basic English-- which could express just about anything.  Basic English never caught on, because few philosophers can get by on 850 words, and even ordinary readers with average vocabularies of forty to eighty thousand words (the actual number depends on what the word word means) need more words to keep their interest from flagging.   

    Short sentences don’t work either, because, despite the fact that Pascal once apologized for a long letter by saying, “I only made this longer because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter,” no one can really agree on when a sentence is short enough.  Is a  six word sentence ideal?  Two words?  One?  Less than one?  Uh . . . .

    As for pronouns, it’s impossible to write without them.  And while most people agree that the active voice is better than the passive, few people even know what the passive voice is (many people confuse it with the past tense). 

    Don’t get me wrong. I do think that many texts can be improved.  Anyone who’s read the tax code knows just what I mean.  But what makes a text simple, clear, or readable is not something you can necessarily predict.  Instead, clarity seems to come from fitting what a writer says to what a reader needs to know, in a manner the reader finds accessible, using a form the reader won’t find objectionable.  Not an easy task, considering that readers will seldom agree on much.  

    The writer’s job is not to be simple or complex, not to follow a formula or diverge from it.  The writer’s job, in plain English, is to keep the reader reading.  Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to do that, no formula of the just-add-water variety that guarantees perfect prose every time.  Maybe in some ideal world where the meaning of is is simple, you can optimize a text.  But you can never optimize your readers.  That’s why we need lawyers, and literary critics -- and even they can't agree on the meaning of the texts they study.  

    There’s very little information on the LA plain language order, because the Los Angeles Times apparently didn’t have enough time to write much about it.  And I wouldn’t wait to read the manual that comes with LA's plain English editing software to find out more.  If you’ve ever read a software manual, you know what I mean.  But Bill Clinton’s ten-year-old plain language order ends with a telling reminder that government is slow to change: “This memorandum does not confer any right or benefit enforceable by law against the United States or its representatives.” 

    That sounds to me like a piece of impenetrable government gobbledygook, plain and simple. I’m no lawyer, but what the disclaimer means, I think, is that despite the fact that the President ordered government workers to use plain English, no one can actually expect the government to use plain English, and more important, no one can sue the government for not being clear.  Considering the government’s capacity to be unclear, that’s probably a good thing.  It also suggests that reinventing government, a subject that generates much talk and little action, may prove to be easier than reinventing English.

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