Cleaning up our language – a never-ending campaign

Submitted by Elaine Blackman, writer/editor, Office
of Child Support Enforcement
Department of Health and Human Services

Only a few generations ago, many causes and movements set
out to clean up the environment. Do any of you remember the “Keep America
Beautiful” campaign? Over time, most of us have learned the habit of throwing
trash in a trashcan—not on the street. We changed our behavior thanks to
research, education and laws, and creative messaging about pollution, litter,
and pride in our surroundings.

It may be hard to believe that campaigns to end “gobbledygook”—bureaucratese,
difficult-to-understand language—has been underway for just as long, if not longer.
In 1962, a government Clear Communication
advised workers to leave out “every effort will be made,”
“experience has indicated that,” and “this is to inform you” from their

Yet, despite research, education and laws to inspire plain
language in government and business writing, many long-timers still set an example
to newcomers that complex jargon is OK. By not
writing in a clear, concise and organized manner in our emails, letters and web
media, we continue to cause a different kind of litter—confusion and inefficiency.

The same reasoning applies to speeches; we want to find
shorter, stronger words to engage our audience. President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt did when his speechwriter gave him this weak sentence: “We are
endeavoring to construct a more inclusive society.” FDR made the message more
powerful: “We are going to make a country in which no one is left out.”

Not easy being green

We know that changing environmental habits isn’t easy;
neither is changing writing habits. However, the good news is we are improving.
On July 19, the Center for Plain Language issued the Plain
Language Report Card
for 12 federal agencies on their progress in meeting
the Plain
Writing Act of 2010
. Who got an A? USDA! Not too shabby for HHS though; we
got a C in “basic Act requirements,” such as having a plain language official,
an implementation plan, and training for employees; and a B for a variety of “supporting
activities” in the “spirit” of the Act.

The same organization announced the 2012 Clearmark
Plain Language Award
, in June, given to the best plain language documents
and websites in both public and private sectors. HHS claimed several wins, for
the website and several “before and after” forms and publications, to
name a few. Check out the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention’s Outdoor Air Quality
site; they did extensive user testing.

In my agency in HHS, we help state, tribal and local
programs deliver quality child support services to parents and families, so the
material we post daily on our new CSS
must display plain language and design. We have a long way to go to
convert the older documents on the website into plain language. On the other
hand, we’ve begun to train our staff in plain language skills. In our training,
we edit real in-house writing samples. We also learn about a readability tool
in Microsoft that gives the grade level of our document and a readability score
from 0 to 100, with 65 considered the plain language target—and it’s not an easy
reach. The score for this article: 55.1,
with 0% passive sentences, another benchmark for easy reading.

Will two-hour training suffice to change old writing habits?
For most, the answer is no. Sure, some are taking plain language seriously;
others, however, seem to think that plain language means “dumbing down” our writing
to appease a few. Nothing could be further from the truth—plain language means
“smartening up” our language to engage all!

So, it will take a lot of practice and willingness for staff
to write for the web so that readers can easily scan. We need to use active
voice and short paragraphs, omit long lead-ins and wordiness, and stick to
certain formats—always keeping our wide-ranging audience in mind. And we need
to give staff evidence that plain language benefits our customers and our

What’s in it for me?

The way we communicate is like the old adage “Do unto others
as you would have others do unto you.” If we want to receive clear and concise
messages that we can understand the first time we read them, then we should
write to others that way. Plain language benefits readers and writers. “It
doesn’t just cut reading time, it also saves you and your readers time and
money,” according to the website,
which cites examples and offers the Federal
Plain Language Guidelines

If you would like more references to share with your
coworkers, look at a brief slide presentation by the Federal Communicators
Network, Introduction
to Plain Language
. You’re a member of the National
Association of Government Communicators
, right? It offers an annual Communications School and cosponsors training events around the country for
members and nonmembers from every level of government. One more: is loaded with tips for
online communication. In fact, search the Internet for “plain language,” and you
will find a movement filled with examples for every field.

When we put internal communication first, employees will
understand the culture and necessity of plain language. Then, we will go
further to enhance our program brand and external communications. Moreover, it
will be obvious to anyone who visits our website that we treat everyone as we
would like to be treated, using plain, simple and culturally appropriate
language. We want our messages and our conversations to be as clear and concise
as we can make them.

Which sentence sounds better to you?

a thorough review of your report, this office approves the recommendations.

Or …

We approve your recommendations.

(Do you approve of mine?)

P.S. Please let NAGC know how your agency is promoting
a culture of plain language and clear communication so we can share your
experience with others. The 2013 NAGC Communications School will feature a session on plain language writing.

Original post

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Peter Sperry

Which sentence sounds better to you?
“After a thorough review of your report, this office approves the recommendations.”
Or …
“We approve your recommendations.”

As an external stake holder, the first sentence tells me Who approved the recomendation (this office), and on what basis (thorough review of your report). The second sentence tells me someone who may or may not have the authority to speak for the office approves the recomendation based on some undescribed reasoning. So which communicates more information?

Also, one person’s plain writing is often another’s total confusion. Eskimos reportedly have 50 different words for various varieties of snow. Budgeteers work in multiple types of years (fiscal, target, planning, completed, current etc). Using “plain language” generic terms when communicating with specialists often inreases misunderstanding. Precise language often uses more words but provides greater understanding. Do you want a rock or a 2 lb, rounded granite riverstone suitable for use as a paperweight?


Joe Biden really needs to “clean up” his verbal language gaffes. Often uses the F-word in public and has insensitively used racial stereotypes in campaign speeches. He and many other officials should be required to take a course in public ethics before serving the people.

Dale M. Posthumus

Language is not a “one size fits all”. Clearly, the audience must be considered when writing. When speaking to specialists about their speciality, jargon is quite acceptable and often preferred. But when communicating to non-specialists, whether management or the public about the same topic, the language must change. Talk to someone who is not very experienced working with the Federal Government and watch their eyes glaze over when you speak in acronyms. Glen’s comparison of the two sentences is removed from context, so that each may be better when context is given. But, even specialized descriptions can be too wordy and confusuing to specialists. Finally, grammar, sentence structure, and word choice are valuable in all contexts.