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A History of Plain Language in the U.S. Government

Joanne Locke, formerly of HHS, gives an overview of the milestones in using plain language from the end of World War II to the early 2000s.

Awareness of the need for clear language isn’t new in the U.S. government.

SEC Plain English Handbook

Warren Buffet, a friend of Levitt’s, summed up plain language marvelously in this “writing tip” in the introduction to the 1998 SEC Plain English Handbook.

Write with a specific person in mind. When writing the Berkshire Hathaway annual report, I picture my sisters, highly intelligent, but not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is to give the information I would wish to receive if our positions were reversed.

2000s

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

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

FAA is home to the leader of the U.S. Government’s plain language movement, Annetta Cheek. Dr. Cheek hosts the monthly meeting of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). Every member of PLAIN is working to ensure that the information written by federal employees is in plain language. Some members of PLAIN volunteer to train staff in other agencies on how to use plain language in their agency’s specific documents. FAA has a strong plain language program of its own.

Federal Register

The Office of the Federal Register is revising its requirements and allowing many plain language tools and techniques. It has produced two excellent aids to plain language, Making Regulations Readable and Drafting Legal Documents.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

FDA realizes that low health literacy combined with the increasing incidence of chronic health problems like diabetes and obesity results in a serioU.S. public health problem. To fight these problems most effectively, they know it is more important than ever to use plain language so consumers get information that is clear, informative, and effective in helping them improve or maintain their health.

Health and Human Services (HHS)

Secretary of HHS Tommy Thompson sponsored an Interagency Plain Language Forum in 2002 and personally urged everyone on his staff and throughout the government to communicate in plain language.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

NIH has a plain language coordinating committee that meets regularly and helps spread the word about clear writing to all the NIH Institutes and Centers.

Veteran’s Benefits Administration (VBA)

VBA has trained many thousands of staff in Reader Focused Writing, so that letters and notices to veterans are easier to read and so that veterans understand better how to apply for the benefits they deserve.

A few final words

Federal employees are coming to understand that the plain language initiative isn’t simply the Federal Government’s newest writing fad. It’s been here for a long time, but is becoming even more important in the current days of information moving onto the web, of many citizens becoming older, of everyone being so busy that they have little time to untangle gobbledygook.

The private sector as well as the public sector has been actively using and spreading plain language. And the United States is not the only place where plain language is taking hold. In fact, other countries have been actively pursuing plain language even longer than we have. Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have many examples of plain English, and plain language is an important initiative in many other countries, including Sweden, Italy, and Mexico.

PLAIN believes the public deserves to understand what its government is doing for them and expects of them. Whether or not there is a government-wide mandate to use plain language as government leaders come and go, the initiative has taken hold. The public is beginning to see the difference plain, clear writing can make. They are starting to expect no less from their government.