Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Plain Language Act

I got a chuckle from the AP article that appeared in last week's Oregonian regarding the Plain Writing Act recently signed by President Obama.

Why are government documents (from the feds to the states and local entities) written in gibberish? My experience (30 years in state government) leads me to believe that people don't know the difference between legalese and sharing information.

My first question was always "who is the intended audience?" When drafting Administrative Rules I worked with an assistant attorney general to assure that the language was legally correct. Scientific reports had to be biologically accurate and could be more technical for a savvy audience. Correspondence and documents for public consumption needed to be correct, yet brief and easy to follow. Was the audience an attorney, a research biologist, or a deer hunter?

Decades ago when I took over the administrative rules from a wildlife biologist, I realized he was writing the regulations synopsis as if it was a legal document. Over time, I worked with staff to develop the regulations into a more informative and less stilted publication. Not that the multiple seasons and legal descriptions for agricultural damage hunts were easy to follow. However, we used bulleted lists and graphs when we could, and I applied the active voice to the documents instead of the passive voice common to scientific writing.

Government documents are often written by an expert in the topic. That expert may not have the natural skills or training in written communications. The expert may be able to convey technical information to others in her/his field, but lack the ability to simplify the subject matter for a general audience.

Plus -- there is stilted-essay-syndrome. You know how it goes -- you can write an entertaining and amusing postcard to family and friends, but as soon as you must write an essay to be graded you become stiff and stilted. For some reason many people revert to 18th century English in their formal writing.

But what I really found amusing about the whole "plain language in government" subject was the Oregon Department of Education's proposal to reduce its budget by eliminating the statewide writing assessment system. Not to mention texting abbreviations and syntax making its way into student reports. Plus the grammar twisting language of interviewees on the nightly local news (I particularly loved the young woman who used "have tooken" during a segment on high gas prices).

So who, I wondered when I read the above article, is going to write this plain language for the government? It seems few students are acquiring correct English during their K-12 schooling. And liberal arts degrees are considered "useless" now that colleges and universities are treated like trade schools.


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