Government can’t speak plain English

Published 10:16 am Wednesday, August 11, 2010

“My question to you is simple,” I said, as I sat across from the government bureaucrat and his interpreter. “Why doesn’t the government communicate in plain English?”

“Your query poses prospective considerations,” said the bureaucrat, “that rise above and beyond the level of considerations that the voter-taxpayer may be prepared to rise above and beyond.”

“Huh?” I said to his interpreter.

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“He said it’s best the public doesn’t learn the real reason,” said the interpreter.

“But we deserve to know,” I said. “Our politicians voted on a 2,400-page health bill that was so confusing, few legislators knew what was in it. Now it is being converted into rules and regulations that are confusing the public even more.”

“It is because,” continued the bureaucrat, “government representatives and their legislative aides are often persuaded, at the behest of revenue-generating entities, to apply lawyerly terminology to obfuscate clarity in a manner that benefits their outcome.”

“He said that bills are written in confusing language, in part, to conceal the special favors politicians slip in for their buddies,” said the interpreter.

“That, sir, is why plain language is so important!” I said. “In a republic, the citizens must know what their government is up to. Rules, regulations, forms, applications, brochures, letters, requirements, etc. must be understandable!”

“The public, however, notwithstanding the active voter-taxpayer base, may or may not acquiesce,” said the bureaucrat.

“He said ‘blah, blah, blah,’ said the interpreter.

“Look,” I continued, “some wonderful government employees have been trying to make government intelligible for years. Annetta Cheek, who held various executive positions within the government, spent her career doing so. She co-founded a volunteer plain language initiative to improve government ( Now retired, she is chair of a private organization, the Center for Plain Language (

“We concur there have been unfortunate interludes in which taxpayer-receiver entities succumbed to internal unlikelihoods,” said the bureaucrat.

“He said, ‘blah, blah, blah,’” said the interpreter.

“Cheek and other government volunteers worked tirelessly to improve government communication,” I continued. “The Clinton administration embraced their ideas and issued a memo encouraging the use of plain language. A handful of agencies have voluntarily stepped up to make their forms easier for the public to understand. But what is really needed is a plain-language law!”

The bureaucrat rolled his eyes.

“Such a law almost happened in both 2006 and 2008. U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, introduced a commonsense bill that required federal agencies to translate their documents into ‘plain language.’ It passed the House with overwhelming majorities both times.

“Then Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, introduced companion bills in the Senate. Both were well on their way to passing until Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, held them up. He offered some nonsense about the unintended consequences of making all agencies translate complex laws into clear language.

“That is ridiculous, sir! Imagine the time and money that would be saved if citizens could understand government forms. Imagine how carefully new bills would be crafted if legislators knew their intent would be clearly articulated once the bills became law!

“The public demands clarity, sir! The public must contact its Senators and demand that the Plain Writing Act (S.574) be passed into law! Now what do you say to that, sir?”

“Are you nuts, pal?” said the bureaucrat. “If not for government gobbledygook, my interpreter and I would never be able to earn 185 grand a year!”

Tom Purcell is a freelance writer and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Tom at