In a review of the year-old federal Plain Writing Act this week, the independent Center for Plain Language says federal agencies have experienced a variety of experiences, good or bad.
The story is familiar. The “Plain Language” movement has been pushing ideas on people for at least 100 years, with serious studies being published since the 1930s. Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton have made Plan language decrees. At various times, financial and insurance commissions have issues guidelines. I have a thick file on the movement that goes back more than three decades.
The proliferation of new laws and orders only emphasizes the futility of the movement. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with the idea of Plain Language. There’s a real problem out there.
But the problem is not about language or words or sentences. Language is a symptom of deeper issues. These problems will continue to wreck public language until we recognize and eliminate them. Here’s what’s really wrong:
1. Persons in all large impersonal organizations – public and private – frequently do not have writing skills. All of their lives they have just slapped together any string of words with no underlying structure or sense of readership, just free association that makes little sense to anyone else. Asking them to improve their writing is like asking them to high jump 5 feet. Impossible. Their “solution” to confused writing is often just to muck one free association mind wander into a different rambling mess. I’ve often witnessed this first hand at many places where I’ve done writing consulting.
2. Many people do not actually understand their jobs. They work with little understanding of how their organization fits into the ordinary citizen’s or consumer’s life. They do not know about or care about the organization’s actual policies or procedures. Think of your own experiences with banks or other large organizations with phone “service.”
3. Interoffice politics often dictates the need to obfuscate or actually hide information from your internal adversaries. This habit is not broken when the employee is required to communicate to the outside world. Look around your workplace.
Improving language for these organizations is shuffling deck chairs on a sinking cruise liner.
Read the report: