Reading wordy language is a real pain. As a graduate student of a social sciences discipline (I recently got a Masters’ in gender studies), I saw some of the most ridiculous examples of convoluted and elaborate language out there – social theory seems to spontaneously inspire this habit. It was annoying as a student, as I’d constantly have to reach for the dictionary or reread sentences several times over. It was a wildly inefficient way of doing things.
When that practice reigns in the academic world, it’s bad enough. But in the world of business and government, efficiency should be much more of a priority. To some extent, our government is guilty of similar habits of imprecise writing. For instance, if we look at the text of almost any given law, can anyone without a J.D. understand what’s actually being said? So much official language is very hard for those outside of the field of law or governance to comprehend.
What are the consequences of not using plain language? First of all, it privileges those who have a higher level of education. People without high school diplomas may struggle with understanding government documents if they’re written in complicated language. It’s slightly unfair, as not everyone is lucky enough to have a J.D. on their resume, or even to have English as their language.
Also, it costs the government and citizens time and money. Court forms, for instance, are notoriously difficult to fill out. When victims of domestic abuse want to file for a protective order, there is support staff at the court whose job it is to help him or her fill out the paperwork. Also, I think I’m not alone in my yearly struggle in understanding and filling out my tax forms, even after taking a college class in personal finance.
How many government forms are incorrectly completed by confused citizens? It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to quantify hours or dollars lost, but it’s probably more than anyone wants to admit.
But people are trying to take action to move towards clearer government writing. In October 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, mandating that government documents be written in simple language. A private organization, the Center for Plain Language, issues an annual report on how well the federal agencies adhere to this law. In their 2014 report, the Department of Homeland Security, the Securities and Exchange Committee, and the Social Security Administration topped the list. At the bottom of the list were the Departments of Education, Interior, and the State.
So, clearly there’s a lot of work still to be done so that language will aid rather than hold back government transparency and communication. Here is a particularly confusing snippet from the Affordable Care Act, supposedly talking about health insurance (although you may never know it). According to usa.gov, it’s one of the most requested government laws:
“The Secretary shall establish a minimum interval between the date on which a recommendation described in subsection (a)(1) or (a)(2) or a guideline under subsection (a)(3) is issued and the plan year with respect to which the requirement described in subsection (a) is effective with respect to the service described in such recommendation or guideline.”
As I write this post, I’m highly tempted to break out the high-flying words that make me sound intelligent and well-read. But in the name of efficiency, would you have gotten to the end of this blog post if I had indulged myself? It’s possible, but you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it.