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Plain Language Regulations

We asked the top government plain language regulatory experts to analyze some existing plain language regulations. We hope this will help you develop even better plain language documents.

To see any of these regulations:

  1. Go to ecfr.gov.

  2. In the drop-down menu, select the title number (the first two digits in the regulation’s title) and click Go.

  3. Click on the link that includes the regulation number you are interested in.

  4. On the resulting page, scroll down to the regulation. Note that on that page, if you click on the left-most column you will be taken to the entire regulation, including a table of contents. If you click on the second column, you will be taken to individual sections, one at a time.

Overall organization

Regulation Comments Well organized Short sections Minimizes subdivisions Uses lists Uses tables
21 CFR Part 822 — Postmarket Surveillance Good overall organization. Uses lists pretty well, but could use more. Some sentences could be rewritten to put the main idea first and further clarify language. X X X Some X
41 CFR Part 102-33 — Management of Government Aircraft Good use of subheadings to organize a very complex regulation. Many very long section titles. X X X X X
14 CFR Part 11 — General Rulemaking Procedures Good use of all principles. X X X X X
Does not include any material suitable for tables. Some of the section titles are too wordy. Provides an excellent explanation of the rulemaking process. X X X X No  
43 CFR Part 3200 — Geothermal Resource Leasing A very large and complex regulation. Lacks a good overview of the entire process. Tables could have been used to simplify presentation of some complex information. Many section titles are too wordy. X X X X  
No 25 CFR Part 171 — Irrigation Operation and Maintenance Excellent use of all plain language principles except tables, which aren’t needed in this rule. X X X X  
No 43 CFR Parts 3830 - 3838 Excellent use of all plain language principles. Rule begins with a useful overview that orients the reader to this complex but well-organized material.          
  X X X X X  
40 CFR part 40 Subpart E — Procedures for Workplace Drug and Alcohol Testing Uses some plain language principles, but still suffers from some long sections and sentences. Some section headings are too long and some language could be simplified. X Some Some X  
No 30 CFR Part 250 Subpart A — General Provisions for Oil and Gas and Sulphur Leasing in the Outer Continental Shelf Good example of very complex material that benefits from using plain language techniques. Includes some good tables. Some sentences are too long. X X X X X
30 CFR Part 253 — Oil Spill Financial Responsibility for Offshore Facilities Another good example of a complex technical rule that uses plain language. Contains some long section headings and sentences. X X X X X
47 CFR Part 95 — Personal Radio Services This is a good attempt to make complex material understandable for average users. Uses pronouns to refer to the reader, but not the agency. The plain language portion of this rule begins with section 402. X X X X  
No 13 CFR Part 123 — Disaster Loan Program Well organized and mostly clear. Some long sentences; would benefit from using lists and pronouns. X Some X No  
No 49 CFR Part 106 — Rulemaking Procedures A wonderfully lucid explanation of the rulemaking process. This rule is a model in every way. X X X X X
43 CFR Part 3500 — Leasing Minerals Good rule, but very complex. Would benefit from a few sections that summarize the lease process. Good use of subheadings, but many section headings are too long. X X X X  
No 12 CFR Part 602 — Releasing Information A good rewrite that could benefit from using question headings. X X X Some X

Sentences and words

Regulation Short sentences Sentences start with main idea Active voice Uses “must” for requirements Clear language Uses pronouns
21 CFR Part 822 — Postmarket Surveillance X Some X X Some X
41 CFR 102-33 — Management of Gov. Aircraft Some X X X Some X
14 CFR Part 11 — General Rulemaking Procedures X X X X X X
43 CFR Part 3200 — Geothermal Resource Leasing Some X X X Some X
25 CFR Part 171 — Irrigation Operation and Maintenance X X X X X X
43 CFR Parts 3830 — 3838 X X X X X X
13 CFR Part 123 — Disaster Loan Program Some X X X Some No
49 CFR Part 106 — Rulemaking Procedures X X X X X X
43 CFR Part 3500 — Leasing Minerals Some X X X X X
12 CFR Part 602 — Releasing Information X X X X X X

Key to terms used in tables

Well organized

Organized to meet the reader’s needs. An overview of the requirements or process comes first, followed by the details. If there is a process involved, the regulation gives the outlines first in a list or table, followed by details in separate sections.

Short sections

There are about five or six sections per page of CFR text.

Minimizes subdivisions

No section goes below the “(A)” level, unless the material is presented as a table.

Uses lists

Wherever possible, the rule uses lists rather than text to present information.

Uses tables

Complex information is in the form of a table wherever possible.

Short sentences

While sentences vary in length, no sentence is over 40 words long.

Sentences start with main idea

Exceptions or qualifications are at the end of the sentence or in another sentence.

Active voice

The rule tells readers clearly who does what and does not use passive voice.

Uses “must” for requirements

The word “shall” doesn’t appear in the rule.

Clear language

Rule avoids jargon and legalese.

Uses pronouns

Addresses the reader as “you” and the agency as “we” for greater impact and clarity.