As a writer, I had to chuckle recently when I read about the government’s Plain Writing Act signed into law by President Obama in 2010.
The act is designed to make written government communications, including rules and regulations, easier to understand. In other words, it would require agencies to translate governmentalese into common English.
But I guess it’s do as I say, not as I do.
For a piece of legislation that’s supposed to simplify governmental writings, the act itself is hard to understand in places.
Here’s just one paragraph.
“The budgetary effects of this act, for the purpose of complying with the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, shall be determined by reference to the latest statement titled ‘Budgetary Effects of PAYGO Legislation’ for this act, submitted for printing in the Congressional Record by the chairman of the House Budget Committee, provided that such statement has been submitted prior to the vote on passage.”
Under the Plain Writing Act, the director of each agency — such as those within the U.S. Department of Agriculture — had 10 months to begin implementing it.
The act also requires each agency to publish on its website how it is complying, so I went to www.usda.gov to check things out.
The Center for Plain Language, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, graded all of the agencies in July 2012 about how well they were doing, and the USDA received an A.
The USDA also published its latest compliance report, an 80-page document, in April to show how it had made its communication easier to understand.
One of the major directives from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was “eliminating unnecessary jargon, acronyms and abbreviations” — this coming from an agency where alphabet soup used to prevail.
I haven’t compared written communications from before the act, but it seems like the USDA still likes the alphabet.
Here’s just one sentence from the report, and I see three different acronyms.
“AMS’ Transportation and Marketing program (TM) Grain Transportation Report (GTR) is a weekly online report that covers developments affecting the transport of grain, both in the domestic and international marketplace.”
As I read through the report, I found myself continually looking back and forth to decipher acronyms, such as FNS (Food and Nutrition Service), CNPP (Center for Nutrition Policy and Programs), FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration).
As one agency boasted, adhering to the new Plain Writing Standard has resulted in “more efficient clearance.” Why didn’t they just say that using simplified language reduced the number of revisions?
And even Vilsack — or possibly his ghostwriter — is guilty of using meaningless big words. The headline on his April 26 column, “Accomplishing More by Democratizing Data,” told me little. The article actually was about openness in government and providing more public access to scientific data.
I will give the USDA credit, though. For the most part, authors have shortened sentences to something that the brain and eyes can actually follow. It wasn’t too long ago that some USDA documents frequently featured unwieldy sentences of more than 60 words.
But overall, I have to give the USDA a C. The department has improved but still is average when it comes to overuse of jargon and acronyms, run-on sentences and just plain big words.
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