- Understanding the history of the plain English movement certainly won't make you a better plain English writer, but a brief overview of the why behind the what might help clarify why plain English is such a big deal, and it's not just a fad of here today and gone tomorrow. In fact, it's becoming a bigger deal in both business and in government. Trying to mandate plain English isn't a new concept. Actually, one of the early movements was after World War II. Nor is the movement isolated to the United States.
plain English initiatives are also important in other countries such as Great Britain as early as the 1970's. Australia, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Sweden, and the United Kingdom also have initiatives in place for plain language use. John O'Hayre and employee of the US Bureau of Land Management wanted less bureaucratic language used so wrote Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go in 1966. If you're interested in seeing the original message and how it was revised, visit this website to read the first part of the book.
There Federal Communication Commission is usually credited for writing the plain language rules in 1977. President Richard Nixon cautioned government employees to use layman's terms. Another US President, Jimmy Carter, tried to continue the plain English movement in 1978 by issuing an executive order to make government regulations cost effective and easy to understand. Not much progress was made until the Department of Education decided to study the problem, which resulted in the Document Design project.
A handbook was produced to which government agencies referred so some progress was made in government documents, but in the 1980's President Reagan rescinded President Carter's executive order. Some agencies, however, the Social Security Administration for example, still continued trying to make its communication as clear as possible. In the next decade, the 1990's, President Bill Clinton revived the plain English government initiative. Here is his requirement that all new regulations be written clearly.
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 Al Gore was assigned to monitor and encourage this initiative. No Gobbledygook awards were presented monthly to Federal employees who took bureaucratic messages and turned them into plain language that citizens could understand.
The Food and Drug Administration was awarded one for over-the-counter drug labeling. The Veteran's Benefits Administration received one for reader-focused letters. The Social Security Administration for revising its "Your Social Security Statement," and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received one for requiring sport-utility vehicle manufacturers to use graphics, bright colors, and a short, bulleted list to warn owners of the potential danger of vehicle rollovers.
About the same time, the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission's plain English handbook was published and here's part of what Warren Buffet, known as the most successful investor of the 20th Century included in the handbook's introduction. "Write with a specific person in mind. "When writing the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report "I picture my sisters, highly intelligent, "but not experts in accounting or finance. "They will understand plain English, "but jargon may puzzle them.
"My goal is to give the information I would wish to receive "if our positions were reversed." Then in 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requiring Federal agencies to use clear government communication that the public can understand and use. The Exercise File includes some websites that give a more in-depth background of the plain language guidelines. So there's your history lesson. It's clear that government and business realize that plain language initiatives, even though they've been around in one form or another for 50 or more years, are becoming even more important.
Why? Because we're in the information age. We are bombarded with communication everywhere we look. We're busy, and we're becoming more impatient. If something doesn't look easy to read or can't be understood with one reading, we don't have the time, nor the patience, to try to interpret what it means. If the message is clear and easy to read, it doesn't require interpretation. We expect the writer to understand our needs, to write with us in mind, and to use easy to understand words.
Readers are beginning to see that plain English can save time and money and frayed nerves. Ever heard the expression, "I had one nerve left, and you just got on it"? Don't be the one guilty of getting on that one, last nerve of your coworker, your supervisor, your stakeholder, or your client with confusing, unclear, hard to read writing so throughout the course, when you're tempted to ask, "What difference does plain English make, really?" think about the history of it and how it's having an even greater impact on today's communication.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
- Explain how to make your writing clear, concise, and straightforward.
- Recognize the average reading level for most audiences.
- Identify commonly overused words.
- Recognize how strong verbs can help avoid passive writing.
- Explore the benefits of deleting extra words.
- Define “weasel words.”