How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plain Language

If you spend time around editors, you may hear the words “plain language.” What is plain language?

A Short History

The plain language movement in the U.S. began just after World War II, when several federal employees wanted to make federal documents easier to understand.

In 1966, a Bureau of Land Management employee, John O’Hayre, wrote Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go. You can download it here:

Since then, plain language efforts have changed with each administration: advanced by Presidents Nixon and Carter, then rescinded by President Regan. Progress in the 1980s was voluntary and varied by agency. Professor Joseph Kimble, of the Thomas Cooley Law School, became an active advocate in 1984 when he started the longest-running column on legal writing, “Plain Language.” Kimble said:

Poor communication is the great hidden cost of doing business and governing. Using plain language pays off for everyone in fewer mistakes, faster compliance, better decisions, and less frustration. Plain language could even help to restore faith in public institutions.

In 1998 President Clinton revived plain language as a major government initiative. He wrote:

By using plain language, we send a clear message about what the government is doing, what it requires, and what services it offers… Plain language documents have logical organization; common, everyday words, except for necessary technical terms; “you” and other pronouns; the active voice; and short sentences.

Vice President Gore believed that plain language promotes trust in government, and called it “a civil right.” As the lead for the initiative, he presented monthly No Gobbledygook awards to federal employees.

By 2004, the G.W. Bush administration didn’t have a formal plain language initiative, but “a mandate for communicating clearly with the public was part of the Strategic Plan.”

The Plain Writing Act of 2010, signed by President Obama, required that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

So far, the Trump administration has shown little interest in the topic.

Federal Plain Language Resources

You may want to visit sooner rather than later, given its up-and-down history of federal support. Look for The Federal Plain Language Guidelines, a 112-page booklet of advice and examples. You’ll also find Before-And-After Comparisons, Quick Reference Tips, and Word Suggestions.

You’ll find resources that will help you love, and use, plain language.

Drat, Blast, @%#$%! The Curse of Knowledge

Why can’t we just edit and proofread our own writing? We know best what we want to say, right?

Actually, that’s part of the problem. We have information that others don’t have. And we all suffer from the Curse of Knowledge.

Stephen Pinker, a linguist at Harvard University, describes this “chief contributor to opaque writing” in his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details—even when writing for professional peers.

As an editor, I watch out for this. I see it all the time in the work I edit—especially when experts need to reach a broader, general audience or a specific group outside their professional circle.

The curse of knowledge confuses us in general conversation as well. When I mention my Uncle Ed, you envision your own uncle, or an Ed you know. You can’t call to mind my kind, funny, elderly great uncle with the wispy white hair, plaid shirt and suspenders, chewing tobacco, and gravelly voice, the rancher who died many years ago. Unless I describe him for you, of course.

Read more in this excellent article from the Association for Psychological Science.
The Curse of Knowledge: Pinker Describes a Key Cause of Bad Writing