5th International PLAIN Conference, Washington, D.C.

Busting Bureaucratic Language

Conference organizer and co-chair Joanne Locke, a plain-language advisor for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Drug Administration.

bu-reau-crat-ese: n (1949) a style of language held to be characteristic of bureaucrats and marked by abstractions, jargon, euphemisms, and circumlocutions.

SINCE the beginnings of the plain-language movement in the 1970s, the language of bureaucracy has been a favored target. On November 3-5, 300 plain-language experts and advocates from around the world descended on the foggy bottom of bureaucratic language: Washington, D.C.

The gathering represented a vast wealth of knowledge and skills. They talked about reducing bureaucratic language in law, government, health care, education, industry, and business.

The conference was sponsored by the Plain Language Association International and co-hosted by the Center for Plain Language and the Plain Language Action and Information Network. The following describes just a small sample of the presenters.

Language-Relief Efforts

Bryan Garner: embarrass them.

Christopher Balmford: legal documents for the people.

Bryan Garner is an authority on legal language and the editor of Black's Legal Dictionary. Following a long tradition, he uses humor and ridicule in fighting bureaucratic language. Attorneys, he says, use it to maintain social status. He shows them, instead, how plain language actually increases their credibility.

Ex-attorney Christopher Balmford, above right, leads the effort to bring plain language to legal documents in Australia. Other speakers on plain law included Christine Mowatt, author of A Plain Language Handbook for Legal Writers. Daphne Meirmaridis spoke about creating legal publications in Ohio for people with disabilities.

National Heroes

Joe Kimble: streamlining federal court procedures.

Annetta Cheek: keeping planes in the sky.

Joe Kimble, above left, is a law professor and a leader of the plain-language movement in the U.S. He shared his experiences as the primary drafting consultant for the U.S. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Annetta Cheek, above, works for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Ever since President Carter's executive orders of the 1970s requiring plain language in federal agencies, the FAA has taken the lead.

The FAA's new Administrator, Marion Blakey, has recharged the agency's commitment to plain language. Her first step was to sign the FAA Writing Standards Order 1000.36 on March 31, 2003. It said: "...It is critical that we communicate clearly, effectively and in plain language that is readily understood by all. Over the years, much of our writing has become dense and needlessly complex."

Cheek, an anthropologist, is now a key member of Blakey's office. She had previously served as the plain language expert for the National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

In 1995, Cheek founded the Plain Language Action and Information Network for federal employees in all agencies. In 2003, she helped set up the non-profit Center for Plain Language in Washington, D.C. She is one of the conference organizers.

The Health Literacy Gap

Harvey Fineberg: what you don't know about health can hurt you.

There were several presentations on health literacy. Harvey Fineburg, above, is the former Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and now President of the Institute of Medicine. He spoke on the urgent need for clearly communicating health information.

Burkey Belser, considered the "Father of Legal Advertising," spoke of his struggles getting the new U.S. food label approved. Other presenters on health literacy included Rima Rudd of the Harvard School of Public Health. Husband-and-wife team Cecilia and Leonard Doak, authors of the landmark book Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills, also spoke.

Doublespeak Busters

William Lutz: clarity in financial disclosures.

Bill Sabin: navigating the shoals of change.

Two of the more popular presenters were William Lutz and Bill Sabin. Lutz is professor of English Department at Rutgers University and author of Doublespeak: The Language of Business. He led discussions on bringing plain language into financial disclosures.

Bill Sabin for 40 years has edited The Gregg Reference Manual and is a leading authority on American usage. Always entertaining, he explained how he navigates a middle path between tradition and change.

Cynthia Glassman, a Commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), also addressed need to improve the readability of financial disclosures. She noted that writers of disclosures, concerned with limiting liability, fail to communicate with investors.

See her talk online:

Plain Language in Large Organizations

Karen Heij and Ronald Wohl.

Cristina Gelpi, left, and Salome Sierra Flores

Ronald Wohl, above, is a management-and-communications consultant. He and several others, including Audrey Riffenburgh and Neil James, discussed how plain language improves the bottom line and internal performance of organizations.

Maurizio Gotti of Bergamo, Italy, Donald Revell of Ontario, Canada, and John Strylowski of the U.S. Department of Interior showed how plain language solves problems and creates efficiency in multi-lingual environments.

Karen Heij, above, came from the Netherlands with her colleagues Inge Leenders, Wessel Visser, and Ashra Sugito. They spoke of developments in their country and the European Union. One was the Common European Framework for the References of Language, a tool for establishing literacy standards for different languages. The tool uses six levels of language proficiency. The same group in the Netherlands has developed a tool for testing the readability of texts in different European languages, Texamen.

Cristina Gelpi, above center, teaches translation and lexicography at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. She spoke of her experience in translating French documents into Castillian and Catalan. Her current project is applying plain language to online legal bilingual dictionaries.

Salome Sierra Flores, above right, is a leader in bringing plain language, el lenguaje ciudadano, to federal agencies in Mexico. The Web site for the federal effort supporting plain-language is: http://www.lenguajeciudadano.gob.mx/

The speakers on plain-language translation emphasized the need for close cooperation between the original authors, the translators, and members of the target audiences. There is no reason, they claimed, that a text cannot get more focused and clear as it goes through successive translations.

Moving Mountains

Gary B. Larson, left, Susan Kleimann, center, and Susan Milne:
determined, resourceful, and effective.

If you think turning around an ocean liner is difficult, try changing the way the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does business. Susan Kleimann, above center, and Ann Gelineau talked about improving the way the IRS communicates with taxpayers, one notice at a time.

Gelineau works for the IRS's Office of Notice Improvement. Kleimann is the Executive Director of the Center for Plain Language and a co-chair of the conference. She is President of Kleimann Communications Group in Washington, D.C. and has worked over 30 years with government agencies in developing and testing consumer information.

Writer-activist Gary B. Larson, above left, maintains the Web site and the news group of Plain Language Association International, the organization sponsoring the conference. He also maintains Garbl's Writing Center online.

Susan Milne, above right, is chair of Plain Language Association International and a co-chair of the conference. She has 20 years experience bringing plain language to financial-services in Canada.

To these and many others we owe a debt of gratitude for this extraordinary meeting. It was a pivotal event in the plain-language movement.

The success of the conference, like the plain-language movement itself, is the result of a handful of people with great determination and know-how.

Bureaucratic language wastes billions of dollars a year and costs countless lives. Plain-language workers, like those at the conference, have produced enormous results, benefitting millions across the world.

The following are a couple online reports about the conference:

The Baltimore Sun:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/lifestyle/bal-to.plain07nov07, 1,6059536.story

Baton Rouge Advocate:

Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey

How Reading Skills are Learned and Lost

A Boston student takes a media literacy and health survey. Photo: Boston High School Renewal Newsletter.

THE first report from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) is entitled Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey Learning a Living and Earning Skills.

The ALL study follows up the International Adult Literacy Survey (1994-1998) reported in our last issue. It looks at the literacy gaps faced by countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The study also looks at the factors that affect the formation and loss of adult skills in various settings—at home and at work.

It documents the effects of formal adult education and informal learning on reading skill. It also looks at how technology has increased inequality in both productivity and wages.

Good readers bring large domains of knowledge to their families, their jobs, and their communities. Improving one's reading skill is one of life's best investments.

The study supports the following conclusions:

  1. Reading skill is not fixed but dynamic. A person who has sufficient skills to graduate from high school can quickly lose them without practice. Continued reading improves reading skills and knowledge throughout life.
  2. The level of education completed is no indication of reading skill. A 7th-grade teacher can face a class in which reading skills go from the 2nd to the 12th grade. Large numbers of people graduate from high school with 8th-grade reading skills. For most people, their level of reading skill is several grades below their actual level of education.
  3. For unassisted, unguided reading, people read texts most comfortably if they are written two grades below their actual reading level.
  4. For assisted reading in a classroom or training situation, texts that are two grades above actual reading skill improves reading skill by promoting a set-to-learn, the anticipation of learning.

As a general rule of thumb in the U.S.:

For a brief report of the ALL study, download:

Highlights from the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey:

For the longer report, download:

Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey:

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, Ph.D., International Consultant on Adult Literacy

"I finally got around to reading your article. It is very good, scholarly, and complete. Even though readability formulas have been around for years, I think that the biggest current problem is that they are not widely used. Much education of writers, editors, and general population is needed."
—Edward Fry, Ph.D. Reading Consultant.

"I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the level of scholarship in your amazing work, The Principles of Readability.
—Eldon McMurray, Ph.D. Candidate, Utah Valley State College.

Plain Language in the News

Juries prefer new California instructions:

Easy voter guide for Californians:

City building permits too complicated:

Plain English Campaign finds English howlers:

Multiple-language workplaces becoming common:

County prepares for flu pandemic:

The new Medicare drug plan confusing:

Use of plain language and IQ:
really-smart--say-experts--- name_page.html

Euphemism vs. plain speech:

Ballot measures voter-resistant:

McDonald's move to plain-language calorie disclosure:

Plain-English guide for shareholder activists:

Buyers don't want gobbledygook:

New dictionary of gobbledygook:

Accountants consider new international clarity standards:

Fighting illiteracy in Niagra Falls: