'Plain language' effort spawns online resource

Americans should be able to understand government documents the first time they read them. This reasonable expectation should go without saying, but the fact is the text of many government documents is confusing, full of legalese and wordy phrases that end up causing more problems than they set out

Americans should be able to understand government documents the first time they read them. This reasonable expectation should go without saying, but the fact is the text of many government documents is confusing, full of legalese and wordy phrases that end up causing more problems than they set out to solve.

Every agency faced with that challenge now has a new World Wide Web site to help it with the task. At www.plainlanguage.gov readers find useful information compiled by the Plain Language Action Network (PLAN), a governmentwide group working to improve communications from the federal government to the public.

The PLAN site is the offshoot of a White House memo sent to heads of executive departments and agencies earlier this summer directing them to begin using plain language in all documents and in all proposed and final rulings published in the Federal Register.

The new site brings together a mix of plain-language resources— reference material, examples, an events listing— and practical advice on writing clearly.

For example, the site provides a What's Happening section for "new and important" information on plain language. Click here to read a paper called "Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please" from Volume 7 of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing (1996-1997) by Joseph Kimble, a professor at the Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich.

Kimble challenges readers to imagine the cost of poor writing that is typified by officialese and legalese. He sites an example of a Federal Communications Commission regulation for citizens band radios that resulted in so many questions from the public that five full-time employees were required to answer them.

After the regulation was rewritten to change topics such as "Authorized frequency" to "On what channels may I operate?" and "Limits on antenna structure" to "How high may I put my antenna?" the FCC did not receive nearly as many calls and was able to reassign the employees, according to Kimble.

Beware, however, that the link to Kimble's paper is not in perfectly plain language because of a problem the browser has reading dashes and quotation marks. Dashes appear as C's in the text and quotation marks as A's and the @ symbol. This adds confusion, which has the effect of diluting some of the points Kimble made about clear and simple writing.

Another link from What's Happening and from the How To button goes to Plain Train, a tutorial on plain language written by the National Literary Secretariat of Canada. The link has eight topics, each of them comprising a long page of tips. A railroad theme with a cartoon character dressed as the conductor makes the pages less static than others filled with text only.

Some of the site's other sections are: the Reference Library, with pertinent guides to plain-language writing; Legal Citations, which lists citations related to the use of plain language; and AG Awards, which has information on an awards program to recognize people who rewrite government documents in plain language.

The Example Library contains examples of documents written in plain language compiled from a variety of sources, including federal and state governments and the private sector. For example, under examples of regulations, the site shows how the Environmental Protection Agency is cleaning up its regulatory language as part of a new initiative.

The Example Library could prove to be one of the most useful items on the site, but it could use more information. It has before and after versions of regulations, letters, manuals and other documents. Currently, it has no examples of forms but is looking, and it could use more letters. There are only three now.

Another improvement would be a link to a site that could assist with grammar and spelling, such as the Digital Education Network's www.edunet.com, which offers a section titled Online English Grammar. The move to promote plain language is part of the Clinton administration's National Partnership for Reinventing Government. The June 1 memo gave agencies until Oct. 1 to use plain language in all documents except regulations.

The memo also said documents created before Oct. 1 must be converted to plain language by Jan. 1, 2002. By Jan. 1, 1999, plain language also must be used in all proposed and final rulings published in the Federal Register.

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