The Plain Language Act

There has been a lot of talk in the plain language field about the forthcoming vote on the Plain Language Bill in the US. Its premise is very simple: to require the federal government to write all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner that follows the best practices of plain language writing.

Now I don’t claim to understand the processes involved in getting a bill through, but with an initial vote of 386 for, and only 33 against, two things are clear: there is a great appetite for this bill, and there are 33 people who either have a vested interest in keeping the public in the dark or who know the practicalities doom it to failure.

The reason I’ve decided to quickly write about a law that, in all truth doesn’t affect me, is not about the principle – I agree with it of course. My interest is in how it can be applied and policed. After all, who will set the standards, and can they ever be free of political pressure. In many ways I would imagine it’s the same as writing for a large client, with different departments each stating their case for their own needs to be given the most consideration.

I had a recent moan about the Plain English Campaign here in the UK, and the somewhat strange notion that companies and organisations can award recognition for Plain Language, from the very organisation that does the work for them – for money of course. My fear for the Plain Language Act is that it falls into a similar trap, where the standards are set by those with a vested interest, and the standards of what is considered successful will vary wildly dependent on the politics behind each individual document.

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