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The Government Domain: Plain Language in Government Communications

By Peggy Garvin, Published on May 20, 2008

With the progress of the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008 (H.R. 3548, S. 2291) in the U.S. Congress, the movement for using plain language in federal government documents has taken a step forward. Plain language is the opposite of gobbledygook, bureaucratese, and legalese. Plain language, also called 'plain English' in the U.S., refers to writing that is clear, simple, and direct. The federal government's PlainLanguage.gov website quotes definitions and discussions of plain language from a variety of sources, including a 1946 essay by George Orwell on Politics and the English Language with its timeless advice to "never use a long word where a short one will do."

The pending Plain Language bill is directed at federal agencies, and it states:

Within one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, each agency--
  1. shall use plain language in any covered document of the agency issued or substantially revised after the date of the enactment of this Act;
  2. may use plain language in any revision of a covered document issued on or before such date; and
  3. shall, when appropriate, use the English language in covered documents.

The bill as passed by the House covers "any document that explains how to obtain a benefit or service or file taxes, or that is relevant to obtaining a benefit or service or filing taxes" and "a letter, publication, form, notice, or instruction" whether in paper or electronic form.

The requirement to "when appropriate, use the English language in covered documents," is clarified in the bill's text:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed--
  1. to prohibit the use of a language other than English;
  2. to limit the preservation or use of Native Alaskan or Native American languages (as defined in the Native American Languages Act);
  3. to disparage any language or discourage any person from learning or using a language;
  4. to impact or affect protections regarding language access; or
  5. to be inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States.

In floor debate, the bill's House sponsor - Rep Bruce Braley (D-IA) - further explained, "Mr. Speaker, it's important to clarify that nothing in this bill is intended to impact the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 13166, Department of Justice LEP Guidance, any agency LEP guidance, or any other statute, executive order, agency guidance, regulation, or court order regarding language access." (154 Congressional Record H2238, April 14, 2008).

For guidance, the Plain Language bill recommends the Security and Exchange Commission's Plain English Handbook and the Federal Plain Language Guidelines, or any agency guidelines consistent with these. PlainLanguage.gov links to these and related guides in its How To/Guidelines section. Even though the Plain Language bill does not address the writing of regulations, resources on that topic are easy to find on the PlainLanguage.gov regulations page and at the Office of the Federal Register page Plain Language Tools.

The Plain Language bill requires agencies to report on their plans for training employees to write in plain language. PlainLanguage.gov conveniently supplies a list of training courses and materials for trainers. The site also has Tips for Starting a Plain Language Program.

PlainLanguage.gov has many other tools and tips for writers in any profession. The site's Word Suggestions page includes a wonderful list of simple words and phrases to use in place of the usual gobbledygook. For example:

Scroll down to the bottom of the site's Keep it Jargon-free page for tips on using acronyms sparingly. The tips begin with the story of English Defense Minister George Robertson who tried cutting out abbreviations and acronyms at the Ministry of Defense and observed "I soon realized solving Bosnia would be easier." (You will find a slightly different account of this quip in the 2003 House of Commons committee debate on a railway and transport safety bill.)

For more information on the pending Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008 and on other plain language topics, see:

Center for Plain Language, "a 501(c)(3) corporation established to propel the belief that government and business communication can be clear and understandable."

Plain-English Drafting for the 'Age of Statutes', by Douglas E. Abrams, Precedent (Winter 2008).

Plain Language Association International, a "nonprofit organization of plain-language advocates, professionals, and organizations committed to plain language."

Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008, House Report 100-580 (April 10, 2008).

Plain Language in Law, by Sandeep Dave, LLRX.com (November 18, 2002).

Usability in Civic Life, a project website from the Usability Professionals' Association.

Writing for the Web/Plain Language, from Webcontent.gov.