new momentum for plain language in government

House and Senate committees are currently reviewing two bills that call for federal agencies to use simpler, clearer language in public documents. Both H.R. 946, the “Plain Language Act of 2009” and S. 574, the “Plain Writing Act of 2009” have been proposed in order . . .

As reported by the Center for Plain Language, this is the second go-around for these bills, which were introduced by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) in the House and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in the Senate. The previous attempt to pass similar legislation in 2008 led to its passage in the House, but the Senate version did not make it out of committee for a vote. If passed, the legislation would require federal agencies to ensure that their public documents in print and electronic form are written using language that can be understood by their intended audiences — that is, the general public.

So what is “plain language,” and what does it mean for you?

First, a little background. The effort to introduce plain language into federal government documents, publications, and forms began more than 30 years ago. Since then, motivated occasionally by Presidential decree and other times by the initiative of individual agencies, the concept of plain language has gradually gained momentum within the government. The effort is spearheaded by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), which maintains an excellent website full of resources that federal employees and others can use to implement and improve plain language initiatives in their organizations.

So what exactly is plain language? Here’s the definition from the Senate version of the current bill:

That’s a pretty handy description. Clarity, concision, and organization are key elements of good writing in any field, but they are prerequisites for ensuring accountability and effective public oversight of government. As the great William Zinsser wrote, “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.” Good writers understand that the inverse is also true: clear writing is an indicator of clear thinking. In the federal government, therefore, plain language is the business of helping people understand the people’s business.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.