Plain English, please

In a typical government document, you're bound to encounter gobbledygook galore. Although it's been two years since the Plain Writing Act was passed, several federal agencies are still using convoluted language and jargon, raising eyebrows and overall confusion.

For example, the nonprofit Center for Plain Language called the General Services Administration to task for “extremely dense and unnecessarily circular” text in the Federal Acquisition Regulation. The center advocates for plain language in government and business documents.

“The unnecessary circularity conceals, or almost conceals, the fact that the regulations appear to give super power to the regulator,” a center report states. “The circularity in the regulation allows that oddity to exist.”

Here is some of the offending text from the introduction to the FAR: “The statement of Guiding Principles for the Federal Acquisition System (System) represents a concise statement designed to be user-friendly for all participants in Government acquisition. The following discussion of the principles is provided in order to illuminate the meaning of the terms and phrases used. The framework for the System includes the Guiding Principles for the System and the supporting policies and procedures in the FAR.”

A Defense Department message to employees about their pay system was also cited as overly complex: “A user's failure to take reasonable steps to identify such communications or data as privileged or confidential does not waive the privilege or confidentiality if such protections otherwise exist under established legal standards and DOD policy. However, in such cases the U.S. Government is authorized to take reasonable actions to identify such communication or data as being subject to a privilege or confidentiality, and such actions do not negate any applicable privilege or confidentiality.”

So what does good writing look like? Here's one example: “Some employees are reluctant to report exposure incidents. Encourage your employees to report all exposures.”

That comes from a guide on blood-borne pathogens jointly issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Westat.

When the quote is shorter than the attribution, it’s a safe bet that it was written in plain language.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.


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