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Say "shall" if you must: U.S. government jargon lives on

A movement in Washington to make government notices to average people easier to read - no more "pursuant to" or "heretofore" - could soon be expanded to other parts of the federal bureaucracy.
/ Source: Reuters

A movement in Washington to make government notices to average people easier to read - no more "pursuant to" or "heretofore" - could soon be expanded to other parts of the federal bureaucracy.

But there's just one problem with the latest legislative proposal, plain language advocates say.

It uses the word "shall."

"Shall" is on the no-no list drafted by advocates like retired federal worker Annetta Cheek, who has spent the better part of her 25-year career promoting simpler writing among her peers.

"We like 'must' because it's clear. 'Shall' is ambiguous," she said, referring to the proposal from Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley that would expand the plain language initiative.

Just like its predecessor, the Plain Writing Act of 2010, Braley's measure wants to expand simple writing beyond government letters and brochures and make it part of crafting regulations.

His proposal, however, shows how hard that can be.

"It's engrained, it's entrenched in the offices of the folks who draft federal legislation," Cheek explained. "So even though the bills are fairly streamlined as federal bills go and are pretty clear, we are still stuck with 'shall.'"

Dozens of U.S. agencies are still struggling to comply with the first phase of the plain writing initiative. On Friday, government officials report (er, make that "must" report) their progress - and advocates worry the results will be disappointing.

With workforce reductions and a huge backlog of dense documents, progress has been spotty.

Still, some agencies have achieved results - and realized that plain language not only helps public understanding but also saves time and money.

Instead of "no-cost," it is "free." Gone is the phrase "your estimated response time is...," replaced by the more direct "We expect to mail them to you by..."

Experts say using personal pronouns such as "we" and "you" instead of the distant third person drives home urgency when people get government letters.

Avoiding acronyms, jargon, passive voice and double negatives is also helpful, they add.


Consider the Internal Revenue Service, long considered the unofficial reigning champion of gobbledygook. It recently transformed a 5-page child tax credit form into a 3-page version with helpful bullets and bold headings. Another billing notice was reduced from five to two pages.

The changes helped the IRS win top honors last year from Cheek's nonprofit group, the Center for Plain Language, which helps governments and businesses produce understandable documents.

"Except for when people file their tax returns or when they call us, our notices to taxpayers ... were really the biggest face we have to the public, and they were, quite frankly, unintelligible," said Jodi Patterson, who helps oversee the IRS plain language overhaul as director of correspondence services.

"One of the things that we talk a lot about when people owe money is tax liability ... why we wouldn't just say 'the tax you owe'?" she added.

Changes like that reduce confused calls from recipients and the staff needed to handle them, according to plain writing expert and lawyer Joseph Kimble. People take notices more seriously when they clearly understand what they have to do, such as pay a fee, and that can raise revenues.

"Poor communication is a great hidden cost of doing business and carrying on the government," said Kimble, whose latest book on the subject "Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please" is due out next month.

Washington state government, for example, revised its letter to businesses describing a widely ignored "use tax" and brought in $800,000 more than expected, Kimble said.

Calls to the state's labor department about public document requests dropped from 10 percent to 1 percent after confirmation letters removed jargon and added a fact sheet.

Another example from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs changed a brochure describing a "no cost, objective counseling" benefit to "free financial counseling." It also won an award from Cheek's group.

Braley, who sponsored the 2010 bill and the new proposal, said that while he's seen some dramatic recent changes, his self-described crusade to eradicate bad writing lives on.

The Iowa lawyer acknowledged that the language of his new proposal is a mouthful, promising "to ensure clarity of regulations to improve the effectiveness of Federal regulatory programs while decreasing burdens on the regulated public."

How could a plain language bill read like hieroglyphs? He blames the obtuseness on the central legislative office that hammers out the language of proposals.

"That's not language I wrote," he said.