Plain Speaking

Language and how we use it.
Sept. 10 1998 3:30 AM

Plain Speaking

A Y2002 Problem.

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In June, shortly before summer began, President Clinton issued a governmentwide memorandum the first directive of which takes effect as soon as summer comes to a close. By the beginning of October, if not before, federal bureaucrats are supposed to have put into place the first elements of the government's Plain Language Initiative, which aims to make the government "more responsive, accessible, and understandable in its communications with the public." Those elements include the use of something called Plain Language in all documents other than official regulations--for instance, in all letters, forms, notices, and instruction booklets. The official regulations themselves--that is to say, the entire contents of the daily Federal Register--must come into compliance by Jan. 1, 1999.

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What is Plain Language? Ordinary English speakers might well give different answers, but according to the government, Plain Language uses short sentences; common, everyday words "except for necessary technical terms"; and "you" and other pronouns instead of hands-offish nouns such as "applicant" or "lessee." Plain Language also uses the active voice--although a White House press release accompanying the president's memorandum notes that the Plain Language Initiative, which now forms a part of Al Gore's "Reinventing Government" program, "was developed [oops!] by an interagency group of plain language enthusiasts." This group, the press release goes on, "was formed in 1996." Implementation of the new regulations, it warns, "must be begun by October 1, 1998." For its part, the Plain Language Action Network, a government task force charged with promoting the regulations, states on its Web site, "We are guided by a small steering committee." Ah, well: There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the passive voice, and the active voice sometimes sounds stilted. Besides, the Romans didn't build their city in a day.

What impact the full force and majesty of the United States government can actually have on the English language remains far from clear. To be sure, some official language programs have enjoyed success. In the late Middle Ages, for example, the central governments of England and France set out to turn the dialect spoken at the royal court into a national language. With the advent of a standardized court vernacular, a cadre of scribes trained to use it, a kingdomwide reliance on the legal and other documents the scribes produced, and the military might to back up such reliance--under these circumstances, the spread of the king's English and the king's French was rapid. (The language theorist Stephen Pinker, asked once to define the difference between a dialect and a language, replied, "A language is a dialect with an army.") Today, of course, government pronouncements constitute a small and probably shrinking proportion of all verbiage that is in some sense "national." Apple Computer's "Think Different" advertising campaign may have a more lasting impact on the language than any tweaking of the 1040 form.

Still, governments persist in stepping into language debates--and outside groups persist in putting pressure on governments to do so. I won't bother mentioning France. In England, a citizens' lobby called the Plain English Campaign, led by a former housewife named Chrissie Maher, has sought since 1971 to make English laws and regulations more straightforward. The campaign has spread throughout the Commonwealth of Nations ("Crusade for Plain English Reaches Ghana," announced a recent cover story of the organization's magazine) and has opened a U.S. office in Miami. In Toronto, a doomed utopian named Ted W. Kulp has tirelessly promoted his version of Plain Language, to which he gives the name "Kanadan." (Consider this sentence from the "introduksion" to Kulp's Diksionari uv Kanadan: "Dhis diksionari iz aranjaized alfabetikli, akording tu dhe ingglis alfabet.") Two years ago, the culture ministers of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland agreed to simplify the German language--among other things, by reducing the rules governing the use of commas from 52 to nine, reducing the number of spelling rules from 212 to 112, and performing Teutonic enhancement on certain foreign loanwords. This German version of the Plain Language Initiative--Kampf auf gut Deutsch, as it might be called--went into effect Aug. 1 but has been challenged in court and will be challenged again in a referendum this fall.

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A s for the U.S. government's Plain Language Initiative, its stated ambitions are in truth astonishing. The initial mandates apply only to newly drafted documents and regulations--that is, to materials promulgated on or after Oct. 1, 1998, and Jan. 1, 1999. But the president's memorandum also commits the government to cleaning up the backlog. It declares that by Jan. 1, 2002, all government "letters, forms, notices, and instructions" drafted prior to Oct. 1, 1998, must be retroactively rendered into Plain Language. Existing regulations also call for ex post facto attention. Should the cleanup include all back issues of the Federal Register? All presidential executive orders? Ford's pardon of Nixon? The Wilmot Proviso? The Missouri Compromise? Our problems may have begun even earlier: In Massachusetts, prospective teachers recently complained that one reason so many of them fared poorly on a teaching proficiency test was that they were unfairly expected to comprehend a passage from the Federalist Papers--in many ways, the essential gloss on our entire constitutional system. Needless to say, the Federalist essays do not meet the simple strictures of the Plain Language Initiative.

If enforced, the Plain Language Initiative would create a Year 2002 Problem of surpassing magnitude--a revisionist enterprise unprecedented in our history. As it happens, though, the initiative comes with no enforcement provisions beyond interagency suasion and popular indignation. In fact, Americans seem to possess a tolerance and perhaps even a relish for gobbledygook. In corporate staff meetings, the Wall Street Journal reports, employees everywhere pursue a game called Buzzword Bingo, in which players score by quietly taking note whenever a jargon term ("proactive," "incent," "interface") is wielded by their bosses. We would all feel oddly impoverished, I think, in a world where the occasional malpractice case was never passed off as a "negative patient-care outcome" or where the occasional plane crash was never described as a "failure to maintain ground clearance."

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T he one area of modern life where I wish Plain Language would make more of a mark is the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. Over the years, the words dispensed to the young competitors seem to have become more and more obscure--to the point where the contest lies largely beyond the reach of amateur enthusiasts and is accessible only to a specialized class of orthographiliac autodidacts who have been training for years. The last 10 words in the 1998 national spelling bee included "prairillon," "daedal," "parrhesia," "risorgimento," and "maieutic." Looking back over the past five years, one finds "hebephrenia," "xanthosis," "hirundine," "vivisepulture," "intonaco," and "bathyseism" all occurring in the crucial home stretch. "They don't use real words much anymore," lamented the mother of one contestant last spring, after her son misspelled "fodient" in Round 6. ("Fodient" means "fitted for, or pertaining to, digging.")

Traditionally, the national spelling bee is the venue where children of immigrants triumphantly demonstrate mastery of their new language. Too often, now, the winners demonstrate mastery of words that don't sound like English at all. Surely we can do a little better (the dictionary is, after all, a fodient-friendly volume). I don't harbor enormous hope for Reinventing Government. But a few new guidelines for the spelling bee seem well within our power.

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