Reinventing English

by Dennis Baron

On June 1, 1998, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore ordered the federal government to communicate with the American people in plain language. The order came in the form of a presidential executive memorandum, itself written largely in plain English, to all heads of executive departments and agencies. The memorandum requires plain language "in all documents other than regulations" written after October 1. In addition, the Clinton/Gore memo requires that all government documents written before October 1—and that is a very large number of documents indeed—are to be rewritten in plain language by January 1, 2002. Finally, by January 1, 1999, all rules published in the Federal Register are to use plain language.

Clinton and Gore’s plain English directive is part of their commitment to reinventing government. Health care reform is too complex, gays in the military too controversial. So Clinton and Gore have decided to reinvent English to ensure their place in history. The President is betting that not even a Republican Congress could oppose plain language, an apple pie issue if there ever was one. They tell us that plain language has moral and practical benefits: "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 saves the Government and the private sector time, effort, and money." It is clear that government language could use some cleaning up. A scant three weeks after the plan to reinvent English was announced, administration officials had to withdraw more than thirty million copies of a new consumer guide to the Medicare program when focus groups found the descriptions of new health care options incomprehensible. What is not clear is whether the government can clean up its linguistic act.

The Clinton/Gore memo boils plain language down into four essentials:

  1. common, everyday words, except for technical terms
  2. "you" and other pronouns
  3. the active voice
  4. short sentences

Government writers seeking further elaboration on plain language can go to a web-based document called "Practical Guidance On Clarity Of The Written Word," which carries the alternate, and clearer title, "Writing User-Friendly Documents" and can be found at www.blm.gov/nhp/NPR/handbk_01.html.

"Writing User-Friendly Documents" advises introducing bad news with words like "unfortunately." Unfortunately, "Writing User-Friendly Documents" is not user-friendly. Each of its twenty-three pages of advice on how government writers can cut the fat and cut to the chase must be slowly and separately accessed and downloaded. Compounding the problem, many of these pages contain embedded hyperlinks to still other pages. In fact, loading the pages and their hyperlinks takes more time than reading them. Although the first precept of "Writing User-Friendly Documents" is "engage your reader," in plain English I found this process distinctly disengaging.

Maybe it’s too much to expect good writing from our federal bureaucrats. Even Clinton and Gore give them till 2002 to get with the program. But what about the advice itself? Surely common, everyday words, the second person pronoun, the active voice and short sentences are preferable to their alternatives? My answer to that is, "Not always." Plain language is not always clear, interesting, or easy to understand. While it is imperative that rules and regulations be explained unambiguously, plain language is not always going to do the trick. Short simple sentences using ordinary words, "you," and the active voice are not always unambiguous. They may oversimplify complex matters. They may miss key nuances. Instead of clarifying a message, they may simply dumb it down. Plain language won’t always work. Nor will the four rules of plain English.

Rule no. 1: Use common, everyday words

Lots of writers recommend short words over long ones, common words over rare ones, concrete words over abstract ones, native words over borrowed ones. Unfortunately, one person’s everyday word may be someone else’s obscurity. In the 1930’s, the philosopher C. K. Ogden put together a set of 850 words--he called them Basic English--which could be combined to express anything English needs to express. The idea was ingenious, but Basic English never caught on, because the 850 words are just not enough words to meet our needs. English has about 475,000 words. One estimate pegs the vocabulary of the average American high school graduate at 40,000 words. We need a lot more than that once we start communicating in detail about particular subjects at a level that will be interesting to readers.

Even the notion of "everyday" words is problematic. Half the words in printed school English occur with a frequency of less than one in a million, including such ordinary words as cyanide, extinguish, inflate, saturate, and ventilate. As for ditching abstract words in favor of concrete ones, that won’t work either. Concrete detail can bring writing to life, but you can’t kick out the abstract words altogether: imagine philosophy without abstraction, or love or mathematics. Nor can we go far without borrowed words. The bias against them is part nationalistic, part a sense that borrowed words are long and abstract, full of nominalizations and artificialities and obfuscations. But not all borrowings are sesquipedalian: bagel (from the Yiddish or Germanic word meaning ‘ring’) is short and precise; day old bagels are about as concrete as you can get.

Rule 2: Use "you" and other pronouns

No one can write without using pronouns, so why is rule 2 on the list? Here’s a case where short and simple language can be ambiguous. My guess is that the Clinton/Gore team wants to break the taboo against using "you." Why don’t they just come out and say so? When I ask college students what they’ve been told not to do in their writing, they invariably cite the rules "Don’t use I" and "Don’t use you." That doesn’t leave writers with much in the way of pronouns, since Americans tend to avoid one as too stuffy. So maybe we’re being asked to reinvent our pronouns along with our government. If that’s the case, I wonder why Clinton and Gore don’t suggest that we invent a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun? That way we could avoid those wordy "he or she" and "his or her" constructions which have lately been contributing to increased sentence length in English.

Rule 3: Use the active voice

Here’s another rule everyone gets told: avoid the passive voice. Most people I ask aren’t sure what’s wrong with the passive. Many of them aren’t even sure what the passive is, which makes it more difficult to avoid. Nonetheless, they know it’s wrong. For much of this century, usage critics have condemned the passive for wordiness and deception, while the active is touted as direct, honest, energetic, and short. Because the passive voice permits us to delete any mention of the agent, the doer of an action, it is often morally suspect as well. It is the ultimate political buck-pass to say "Bombs were dropped" and "Mistakes were made." Agent-deletion is why George Orwell called the passive one of the "swindles and perversions" of modern writing, though Orwell does use an agentless passive in his condemnation of the construction: "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active" ("Politics and the English Language" [1946]).

It is the rare writing text that approves of the passive. James McCrimmon, in Writing with a Purpose (1980) admits, "There are situations in which the passive voice is more emphatic," while Fielden, Dalek, and Fielden, in Elements of Business Writing (1984) offer writers my favorite piece of language advice: "The passive voice can be your friend." In fact, though, prose requires both voices in a mix conditioned by the demands of the particular writing task. Limiting yourself to the active voice may condemn you to needless, monotonous repetition of the agent, as well as locking you into short, staccato sentences, while using only passives may land you in a universe where no one is responsible for anything, which sounds a lot like government to me.

Rule 4: Use short sentences

As for short sentences, what’s not to like? But like the difficulty of fixing the criteria for what makes a word ordinary, 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 . . . . The best writers on the subject fudge on sentence length. Aristotle says that sentences must be "of such a length as to be easily comprehended at once." George Campbell, in his influential Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), advises against sentences that are too long or too complex. Campbell’s contemporary, Hugh Blair, agrees that long sentences "overload the reader’s ear," but warns as well against excessive brevity, "by which the sense is split and broken, the connexion of thought weakened, and the memory burdened by presenting to it a long succession of minute objects." Despite Blair’s warning, short sentences are today recommended as more readable. Readers, today’s wisdom goes, get lost in long, baggy sentences. But short sentences can be simplistic rather than simple. Readers will get lost if sentences are too simple. And the monotony of short sentences can put readers to sleep even more quickly than sentences that are too long--and that doesn’t do much for readability.

Simple is not always better

Unfortunately, the push for plain English has not always paid off. Critics complain that the increasingly simple language of school textbooks turns students off, discouraging them from engaging with complex, difficult ideas. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that many texts can be improved. Anyone who’s read a software manual lately--or the tax code--knows just what I mean. But what makes a text simple, clear, or readable is not something you can necessarily predict by formula. Instead, clarity seems to come from fitting what a writer says to what a reader needs to know, in a manner the reader finds accessible, using a form the reader won’t find objectionable. Not an easy task, considering that readers will seldom agree on the effectiveness of a text. 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. In fact, one of the most discouraging things I have to tell writers who are just starting out is to expect readers to disagree about the value of their text as well as its meaning. Maybe in some ideal world you can optimize a text. But you can never optimize your readers. That’s why we need teachers, lawyers, and literary critics.

Can government reinvent our language?

Let’s face it: Americans want to be correct in their language use, but they staunchly resist anyone who tries to tell them what to do. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a spelling reformer, ordered the Government Printing Office to adopt a list of 300 simplified spellings that had been recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board, a private panel of language experts. The list included words we find common enough today: ax, checker, and theater, replacing axe, chequer, and theatre, but it also included many words like snapt, tho, gazel, domicil, cutlas, and apothem, innovations the American public was in no mood to accept. Faced with massive opposition to his language reform, Roosevelt eventually decided to speak softly and rescind his executive order.

The Clinton/Gore plan for reinventing English, while similarly well-intentioned, promises to fare little better. There are no mechanisms to force civil servants to use plain language, even if writers could figure out exactly what that means.

Curiously, Clinton and Gore fail to comment on one aspect of bureaucratic language that is often the subject of ridicule: the overuse of acronyms, the governmental "alphabet soup." Case in point: "Writing User-Friendly Documents" was written not by a person but by two committees, whose government acronyms are PLAN, the Plain Language Action Network, and NPR, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. It seems that you can reform some aspects of government language, for example promoting the second person pronoun and short sentences to encourage user-friendliness, but it looks like the only way you’re going to get government writers to relinquish their constitutionally protected acronyms is to pry them from their cold, dead fingers.

But the most important piece of evidence that the simple and direct Clinton/Gore directive won’t go far is the disclaimer they put in its last paragraph: "This memorandum does not confer any right or benefit enforceable by law against the United States or its representatives." This sounds to me like a piece of impenetrable governmental gobbledygook, plain and simple. I’m no lawyer, but what the disclaimer means, I think, is that despite the fact that the President has ordered government workers to use plain English, no one can actually expect the government to use plain language. More important, no one can sue the government for not being clear. Considering the government’s capacity to be unclear, permitting such lawsuits would mean terminally clogging the court system. The disclaimer also suggests that reinventing government, a subject that generates much talk and little action, may actually prove to be easier than reinventing English.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.