Plain Language at Work Newsletter Number 40


Helen Hunt Jackson, New England author, poet, and champion of Indian rights.

Plain-Language Classics

Helen Hunt Jackson: A Pen on Fire

BEFORE writer Helen Hunt Jackson attended a lecture by Ponca Chief Standing Bear in Boston in 1879, she had never joined any cause. She was already a famous writer, having published hundreds of poems, articles, novels, and short stories. Prominent journals such as Nation, Harpers, Century, and Scribners gladly pulished her works. Among her friends, she listed Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emily Dickinson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In his Boston lecture, the Chief spoke of forceful removal of the Ponca tribe from their reservation from Nebraska into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The removal caused the tribe many harships and inadequate housing. In spite of many appeals to the government, the old chief watched helplessly as over 100 members of his tribe died, including his own son.

The Simple Expedient of Telling the Truth

With a sense that great injustice had brought shame to the country, Jackson dove into research at the Astor Library in New York City. She found that government reports had carefully described the injustices and atrocities committed against the Indians by settlers, military officers, Indian agents, and corrupt officials. She later wrote:

President after President has appointed commission after commission to inquire into and report upon Indian affairs and make suggestions as to the best methods of managing them.

The reports are filled with eloquent statements of wrongs done to the Indians, of perfidies on the part of the Government; they counsel, as earnestly as words can, a trial of the simple and unperplexing expedients of telling truth, keeping promises, making fair bargains, dealing justly in all ways and all things.

She found the history of white settlers was "a sickening record of murder, outrage, robbery, and wrongs committed" against the Indian.

Jackson started publishing a stream of articles and letters-to-the-editor. Calling herself "the most imprudent woman alive," she accused high-government officers in the press, citing their violations of laws and treaties.

Soon, the public was outraged. Congress and the President were moved to action. Civic and religious organizations stepped up up to promote the rights of Indians. In March 1881, Congress approved $165,000 as an idemnity for losses sustained during the Ponca removal.

The Protest Books

While writing magazine and newspaper articles, she also worked on a book, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes. Jackson's book presented the Indians' cause to the public as no one else had ever done. She showed how American Indians were much worse off than slaves had been, as no one was interested in their survival.

After publication of her book in 1881, Jackson turned her efforts to relieving the plight of the Mission Indians of Southern California.

Visiting their villages, she was appalled at the conditions they were in, saying they were treated worse than animals. She she criss-crossed the area several times on horseback and buggy, often in sweltering heat. She held countless meetings with Indians and locals, publishing articles and reports, organizing legal defense, and getting groups and churches involved.

Jackson then set herself to write a novel that would "move people's hearts" with an Indian love story set in a Southern California ranch. Writing the book in her New York hotel, she completed it in three months, naming it after its heroine, Ramona. Jackson had hoped that her "story would do for the Indian a thousandth part what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for the negro." Published in 1884, the book became immensely popular and was hailed by some critics as a masterpiece. It sold 15,000 copies in the 10 months before her death.

Jackson died in San Francisco in 1885, only six years after hearing Chief Standing Bear's lecture in Boston.

In 1891, six years after her death, the U.S. Congress, following her recommendations, passed the "Act for the Relief of the Mission Indians in the State of California." Both A Century of Dishonor and Ramona went through countless editions and are still in print.

Jackson understood more clearly than anyone that what Indians needed to survive was not charity, Christianity, or education. What they neded first was justice: the enforcement of laws and treaties, clear title to their lands, and American citizenship. She wrote:

Cheating, robbing, breaking promises—these three are clearly things which must cease to be done. One more thing, also, and that is the refusal of the protection of the law to the Indians' rights of property, "of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." When these these four things have ceased to be done, time, statesmanship, philanthropy, and Christianity can slowly and surely do the rest."

It would be another 40 years before American Indians would be granted citizenship. Their land claims are not yet fully settled. But their survival—and the country's honor—owe much to this exceptional writer. She spoke the truth to power and moved the hearts of people.

Sheet music from the 1928 Edwin Carewe picture, "Ramona," starring Dolores Del Rio, the first big Hollywood star to come from Mexico.

Jackson’s 1884 novel "Ramona," while a literary success, romanticized California ranch life and drew Easterners out West. Visitors were often shocked to discover Ramona and her lover were fictional characters. At least one highway and a town were named after her.

Since 1923, an annual outdoor pageant in Hemet, California, has brought Jackson's book to life. The book also inspired four films. The most successful was this one starring Del Rio and Don Ameche.

Planning Plain-Language Projects

Connecting with Resources

Florida Governor Crist: it takes time, money, and resources.

ONCE you have been given the go-ahead for a plain-language project, the first thing you should do is evaluate and plan resources. Whether the project is large or small, whether it involves a few documents or many, having adquate resources will make the difference between success or failure.

Many executives and public officials somehow think that by merely waving a magic wand, documents that are currently obtuse and unreadable can be changed into crystal-clear language. They assume that plain language is easy and that everyone should know how to do it.

Well, as Cicero told us, while, "at first thought, the plain style looks simple, nothing is more difficult." It takes method, training, and practice. For an organization, it also takes leadership and resources. Not supplying managers with adequate resources guarantees failure.

In January, 2007, Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced his "state's committment to provide open and transparent government by changing the way government interacts with its customers."

One year later, 21,000 employees had received training in plain language. A handbook and Web site were developed. Each of the state's 25 agencies had developed an plan for implementation and appointed a person to coordinate plain-language efforts with the governor's office. Some 12,500 documents were reviewed and evaluated for plain language. All that takes time, money, and effort.

As officials in Florida and elsewhere have found, the style of writing is deeply ingrained in the culture of an organization. It takes thoughful planning, determination, and persistence to change the way people communicate.

Obscurity wins

Irish voters pass Lisbon Treaty

Left to right: Brian Cowen, Valerie D'Estaing, and Nicholas Sarkozy:
a great leap backwards for democracy and plain language.

VOTING on the Lisbon Treaty for a second time on October 2 of this year, 64 percent of Irish voters voted for it. This was in contrast to the 46 percent approval that sent the referendum to defeat in June 2008.

The Irish were the only citizens of Europe allowed to vote on the Treaty. In other countries, the treaty was ratified by parliaments. The new Irish vote virtually guarantees success of the Treaty. Approval by the remaining parliaments of Poland and Czechoslovakia will quickly follow.

A $multi-million information campaign

What happened between those two votes? One thing was the recession, which cost the Irish thousands of jobs. Another thing was the bureaucrats of the European Union would not accept "no" for an answer. They first pressured Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen to authorize a second referendum on the treaty. They next spent millions in an "informational" campaign to convince Irish voters that they were wrong in voting as they did and had nothing to worry about.

What was remarkable about this campaign was that it directed attention away from the text of the treaty and made no attempt to help citizens understand it. Instead, it offered slogans and generalities in language such as this:

A more democratic and transparent Europe, with a strengthened role for the European Parliament and national parliaments (the Dail and Seanad), more opportunities for citizens to have their voices heard and a clearer sense of who does what at European and national level.

The campaign failed to address issues raised by the opposition, such as Irish neutrality in time of war, EU taxation, voter input in EU legislation, or the privatization of government functions.

An exercise in obfuscation

Readers may remember that the original EU Constitution, rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, was no model of clarity. As we wrote then, it was a "Titanic shipwreck," "a badly organized, 855-page, 156,447-word document written at the 16th grade level. The first and most important part is missing a title. Some of the 465 articles ended up in the wrong sections."

But in comparison to what followed, the original constitution was a model of virginal clarity. What the Brussels diplomats did after the defeat of their constitution was to retreat to Lisbon. There, they changed the constitution to a treaty, with the express intent of avoiding a vote by citizens.

Valerie Giscard D'Estang, the framer of the original constitution, admitted, the treaty "is still a constitution" with none of the provisions changed. Because of its more difficult language, he said, "if put to a vote of the people, it would never pass."

French President Nicholas Sarkozy was even more cynical: "All the earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised in some way... It's essentially the same proposal as the old Constitution... The good thing about not calling it a Constitution is that no one can ask for a referendum on it... Of course there will be transfers of sovereignty. But would I be intelligent to draw the attention of public opinion to this fact?"

Belgian minister Karel de Gucht put it this way: "The aim of the Constitutional Treaty was to be more readable; the aim of this treaty is to be unreadable. The Constitution aimed to be clear, whereas this treaty had to be unclear. It is a success."

The incomprehensible treaty was quickly ratified by most European parliaments and not submitted to a popular vote, except in Ireland. The Irish Constitution is better at protecting its citizens against politicians giving away their sovereignty. It required a vote by the people.

In June 2008, the Irish voted it down, and with good reason, according to the Economist. The treaty was impossible to understand and it "touches the essential contract between the citizen and the state."

A great leap backwards

The success of the EU's multi-million campaign to influence the Irish on their second vote represents a great leap backwards for both democracy and the plain-language movement. The campaign violated the very openness that supporters claim the treaty offers.

Europe deserves better.

Plain Language in the News

Simpler language for healthier lives:

South Africa's new consumer-protection law:

Jargon on surgery consent forms:

Straight talk on Eurobabble:

New U.S. credit-card act requires plain statements:

Health policy clear as mud:,0,6802102.story

Plain English cancer Website:

Crash course in clear English:

Search engine with readability score:

Designing readable newsletters:

Performance-based testing of consent forms:
_testing_of_ participant_information_for_a_phase_3_ivf_trial.html

Gobbledegook hides financial incompetence:

Problem with Tamiflu instructions:

The doctor can understand you now:

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