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History and timeline

This timeline is an abbreviated and updated version of A History of Plain Language in the Government by Joanne Locke.

2010s

2000s

  • The Bush administration did not have a formal plain language initiative, however a mandate for communicating clearly with the public was part of the Strategic Plan in a number of federal departments and agencies. Many agencies had strong, active plain language programs in place.

  • Arthur Levitt, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission at the time, was a champion of plain language and realized how critical it is for financial documents. The SEC’s Plain English Handbook remains an excellent resource on plain language writing.

  • OMB issued a policy directive about a standard format for grant announcements in 2003.

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued an alert stating that plain language is a public safety matter.

1990s

1980s

President Reagan rescinded President Carter’s Executive Orders, and there was limited progress in the government during the 1980s. It was an agency-by-agency decision whether or not to make plain, clear writing a priority. Some agencies did. For example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) made it a priority to communicate more clearly with the public, revising many of their notices into plain language.

Lawyers started to become interested. Since most government agencies are well staffed with attorneys, it was an important step that they started to be convinced of the benefits of plain language. Professor Joseph Kimble of the Thomas Cooley Law School became an active advocate of plain legal writing and has published many articles on that subject. He also edits The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing and the “Plain Language” Column in the Michigan Bar Journal. That column began in 1984 and is the longest-running column on legal writing. PLAIN shares Professor Kimble’s articles with government attorneys.

1970s

For many of us in the government today, the current plain language movement had its start in the 1970s when the federal government encouraged regulation writers to be less bureaucratic.

President Nixon created some early momentum when he decreed that the Federal Register be written in “layman’s terms.” In 1977, the Federal Communications Commission issued rules for Citizens Band Radios that were written as a series of short questions and answers, with personal pronouns, sentences in the active voice, and clear instructions. These regulations were probably the first to appear entirely in plain English. The current Citizens Band Radio Rules, issued in 1983, continued the plain language style of the 1977 rules.

In 1978, President Carter issued Executive Orders intended to make government regulations “cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them.” A few federal agencies responded by publishing regulations that were more clearly written, although the efforts were sporadic.

The Department of Education decided to fund a research and development contract to study the problems in public documents and get help for Federal agencies that wanted to implement plain language. The contract, called the Document Design Project, went to the not-for-profit American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC, in a consortium with Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a private firm, Siegel & Gale, in New York. The Document Design Project team helped many agencies write plain language regulations and other documents, including the Federal Communications Commission rules for Marine Radios, the Housing & Urban Development rules for the Privacy Act, and clearer forms and instructions for student financial assistance. One of the books from the Document Design Project, Guidelines for Document Designers, served as a handbook for government writers for many years.

Before the 1970s

Interest in making government documents clear has a long, but checkered, history in the United States. After World War II, federal employees like Jim Minor advocated plain language in government documents. John O’Hayre, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management, wrote a book called Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go.