Government Regulations and the Plain English Movement

By Leche, Paul | Policy & Practice of Public Human Services, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Government Regulations and the Plain English Movement


Leche, Paul, Policy & Practice of Public Human Services


Gobbledygook is a word coined in 1944 by Texas congressman Maury Maverick to describe what he called "that terrible, involved, polysyllabic language from those people down in Washington." To say that most people neither understand nor trust the language of government or the law is to flog the proverbial dead horse. What "those people" don't appreciate, however, is how much many of us who read laws and rules for a living agree. That is probably why the movement to write in plain English has now taken hold in many state and federal agencies.

What, exactly, is plain English? While there is no clearly accepted definition of plain English, it can perhaps be best expressed as a goal: documents, regulations and communications that are written in a clear, orderly, and comprehensible manner so they are understandable to those who must understand and comply. This is accomplished by avoiding jargon, using shorter sentences, using the active voice, breaking text into smaller, more digestible parts, and other techniques I will discuss.

The Pros and Cons

The advantages of reforming the way you write regulations and communicate with the public are tangible. First, you will surprise and please those regulated entities, advocates, politicians, and members of the public who are used to reading your agency's rules in their usual form. The reaction to rules expressed in plain language is usually immediate and positive. Plain language builds trust. People are always more likely to trust a person with whom they are dealing if that person communicates in simple and clear terms.

Plain English is more persuasive and it improves comprehension. Better comprehension is not only important for the public but also for the agency employees who have to follow their own regulations.

Moreover, bureaucracies, like people, often deserve their reputations. Dense, impenetrable regulations may correctly signal people that your agency is uncaring and bureaucratic. To put it simply, plain English is a better way of communicating and that is the first goal of all regulations. As the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission once observed about the effort to require corporations to write prospectuses in plain English, "Disclosure is not disclosure if it does not communicate."

Proponents also argue that clearer regulations reduce litigation. A notable example of how on the other hand, poorly drafted documents can be costly in court is the case in which the Immigration and Naturalization Services was taken to court by resident aliens facing deportation for document fraud. The agency used a standard form to advise the aliens of their right to a hearing. The resident aliens, however, failed to request a hearing. The federal court of appeals found that the form was so unclear that it failed to adequately explain the right to a hearing or the consequences if one was not requested, and the court ordered INS to revise the form.

As does any movement, plain English has its detractors. One of the objections to plain English is that it is simply "dumbed-down" speech. I've been told this is just a sad sign of the times, yet another indication of the low level of English comprehension on the part of the young. I cannot argue with the assertion that students today write more poorly and read less well than their parents. (This may be the one legitimate exception to the truism that the good old days were not that good.) However, this argument falls to recognize that governmental regulations have always been unnecessarily dense and poorly written. The problem is not a function of changing educational standards, no matter how deplorable they might be.

It is also said by some (most of whom are lawyers) that the government has to use dense prose because the concepts expressed in regulations are often quite complex. Plain English is accessible and most often--but not always--shorter. …

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