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Word Matters: Uncle Sam Wants You to Fight Gobbledygook

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor
Did you know that Congress passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010? The act — and subsequent executive orders — require that federal publications are written in a way "the public can understand and use." Among other things, official communications must use the active voice, avoid double negatives, and eliminate jargon and clunky coined words like "incentivising."

Wow! I’ve been a long-time advocate of writing in plain English, but I didn’t know until recently that it was a law. The Plain Writing Act carries no fines or jail time for non-compliance, but it does require federal agencies to periodically file compliance reports on how they’re "cleaning up their language," so to speak.

To encourage compliance, the Center for Plain Language issues an annual “Federal Plain Language Report Card” that grades agencies on their efforts in turning bureaucratic gobbledygook into understandable language.

Federal Plain Language Report Card for 2015.

Thanks to the center's initiative, which includes annual awards for the best and worst of government-speak, all 23 large federal agencies are now in full compliance with the Plain Writing Act — including the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration.

I'm inspired and heartened by the fact that the government is actively working to communicate better with the public it's charged with serving. Evidence that plain writing can save money (by reducing queries to call centers, for example) is encouraging, of course. But mostly I like the spirit of accountability behind the effort. If clear communication is essential to a well-functioning democracy, the Plain Writing Act can only help.

So, should the University's Board of Regents pass a Plain Writing Act? I don't see that happening! But I do think we in Family Development can take a cue from the federal campaign for plain writing and strive to communicate clearly and concisely with the audiences we serve. In this way, we can deliver on Extension’s mission to connect community needs and University resources to address critical issues in Minnesota.

Updated September 14, 2016. For tips on clear and concise communication, read Get Organized! and Perplexing Pronouns.
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