April 8, 2012; Source: Washington Post

“Plain language is a civil right,” proclaims the website of the nonprofit Center for Plain Language in large bold letters. The theory behind the slogan is that in order for citizens to actively engage in democracy, they need to be able to understand the laws that their government has written. Anyone who has done any hunting through U.S. federal or state laws likely knows how difficult to parse some legislative legalese can be, and the Washington Post offers this example:

“This subpart identifies those products in which the Administrator has found an unsafe condition as described in Sec. 39.1 and, as appropriate, prescribes inspections and the conditions and limitations, if any, under which those products may continue to be operated.”

If the Center for Plain Language had its way, the Post notes, that same sentence would read as follows:

“Airworthiness directives specify inspections you must carry out, conditions and limitations you must comply with, and any actions you must take to resolve an unsafe condition.”

Still not Hemmingway, perhaps, but at least the reader has some better sense of what the section intends to convey. The Center for Plain Language hosts the annual ClearMark awards for best and worst bureaucratic language in an effort to raise awareness of the issue, and was a champion of both the Plain Regulations Act of 2012 (currently in committee) and the Plain Writing Act of 2010. However, this attempt to open the doors of regulatory understanding to the average person faces several hurdles, the most significant of which is the lack of any teeth behind the 2010 law; government agencies face no consequences for failing to adhere to the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. “What’s more, the law’s demand for clearer language seems like make-work to skeptics who say there is no money to pay for the promotion of clarity and that the status quo is the best path to accuracy,” the Post adds. In response to such criticisms, the Center for Plain Language points to research suggesting that clear, simple writing can not only increase reader understanding, but can also reduce time and money costs for the government and raise government revenue.

Perhaps the biggest concern with plain language in our legislation is the possibility that, in making a document easier to read, some of its meaning may unintentionally be altered. Is that a risk worth taking in the interests of increased understanding of the laws of the land among those who lack a degree in deciphering legalese? –Mike Keefe-Feldman