Reinventing English: Why plain language isn ’t so simple.
debaron at UIUC.EDU
Fri Mar 9 06:43:44 UTC 2007
There's a new post on the Web of Language:
Reinventing English: Why plain language isn’t so simple.
Almost a decade ago Bill Clinton and Al Gore ordered the federal
government to begin communicating with Americans in plain English.
All government documents created after Oct. 1, 1998, had to use easy
words and short sentences, plus pronouns like you and the active
voice. Agencies were given three years to rewrite all their old
documents in plain English as well.
If my recent struggle with IRS Form 1040 is any example, that
directive, like the Clinton administration’s other attempts to
reinvent government, institute universal health care, decriminalize
military homosexuality, or get anything done at all, failed
miserably. Perhaps it was the Republican Congress, not the English
language, that tripped them up, but then again, Clinton wasn’t even
sure what the meaning of a simple word like “is” is.
Now Los Angeles County has jumped aboard the “plain language”
bandwagon, spending over $200,000 on a computer program to make its
documents easier to read. But the LA initiative, like its federal
predecessor, is doomed to fail...
... the four keystones of plain English don’t guarantee
comprehension. Using simple, everyday words may sound like a recipe
for clarity. But in the 1930’s, the philosopher C. K. Ogden put
together a set of 850 words -- he called them Basic English-- which
could express just about anything. Basic English never caught on,
because few philosophers can get by on 850 words, and even ordinary
readers with average vocabularies of forty to eighty thousand words
(the actual number depends on what the word word means) need more
words to keep their interest from flagging.
Short sentences don’t work either, because, despite the fact that
Pascal once apologized for a long letter by saying, “I only made this
longer because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter,” no one can
really agree on when a sentence is short enough. Is a six word
sentence ideal? Two words? One? Less than one? Uh . . . .
As for pronouns, it’s impossible to write without them. And while
most people agree that the active voice is better than the passive,
few people even know what the passive voice is (many people confuse
it with the past tense).
... The writer’s job is not to be simple or complex, not to follow a
formula or diverge from it. The writer’s job, in plain English, is
to keep the reader reading. Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to
do that, no formula of the just-add-water variety that guarantees
perfect prose every time. ...
find out more, on the Web of Language
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801
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