At a D.C. workshop, participants in the Plain Language Conference plead for end to convoluted communication

In The Event Of Just Cause,that Is To Say,the Need To Inform,plain Talk Advocates Find It Essential To Eliminate The Extraneous


Over the years, true or not, the story has taken on unmistakable power: Sometime in the 1970s, two little old ladies in Derbyshire, England, had trouble making their rent. On the verge of eviction, they donned their spectacles, flipped nervously through the phone book and finally located a number for the local housing authority. To their great relief, they learned they were eligible for government support.

A form arrived in the mail. They tried to read it. But its instructions were so convoluted they didn't know what to do. They died in the streets that winter.

Few on hand at the Fifth International Plain Language Conference in Washington seemed to know - or necessarily care - whether the two dowagers ever really existed. But the tale has assumed the force of legend among members of a movement known as "plain language," an unofficial but growing crusade to teach bureaucrats, attorneys and other habitual offenders around the world that, when it comes to communication, straight talk isn't just easier to follow. It's essential.

"Rule No. 1 is that language should fit the user's needs, not the writer's," says John Strylowski of the U.S. Department of the Interior, one of the more influential advocates of plain language within the federal government and a speaker at the conference, which was held at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel over the weekend. "Nobody ever read a sentence and said, `Can you make this longer and more complicated for me?'

"In every field, gobbledygook has consequences," he says. "It's best, in more ways than one, to keep language clear, simple and easy to understand."

In a few easy steps, let him explain.

He stands before a roomful of people, a bespectacled, teacherly man in a blue Oxford shirt, neat tie and pleated khakis. The words projected on a screen seem as intelligent as he does.

"Now then - what, exactly, are they saying?" asks Strylowski, moderator of the workshop that opens the conference.

Strylowski, whose job title - "senior regulatory analyst" - is as unwieldy as his manner is crisp, gestures to the words behind him.

"As with the progenitor of the scion," they read, "in such similar manner it may occur with the scion."

His students blink.

A few rows back, a man's eyes light up, and his hand shoots into the air.

"Like father, like son!" he cries. Seventy professionals from four continents burst into laughter.

It's the kind of moment Strylowski has lived for since the early 1970s, when his career began. His bosses at the time asked him to rewrite some government documents. The language in them was badly convoluted, but the writers - government old-timers all - were loath to embrace the corrections of an upstart in his 20s.

Writers are like drivers, he says; everybody thinks he's a good one. "Cleaning things up was like house-to-house combat," he says with a laugh.

Some trace the history of plain language in the government to Jim Minor, a federal employee who advocated clarity in documents shortly after World War II. Later, President Nixon suggested the Federal Register be written "in layman's terms," and in 1978, President Carter issued executive orders to make government regulations "easy-to-understand by those who (are) required to comply with them."

But it wasn't till 1998 that the movement got a real boost, when Bill Clinton wrote a presidential memorandum formalizing the quest for language ordinary people can understand without too much strain. "We are determined to make the Government more responsive, accessible, and understandable in its communications with the public," he wrote. The action bolstered the Plain English Network (PLAIN), an interagency committee now called PLAIN-US, which is based in Washington and still central to the plain-language field. (The PLAIN-US Web site,, posts events, workbook-style instruction, and links to writings in the field.)

The Center for Plain Language and Plain Language International (which now claims the acronym PLAIN), two other organizations in the field, were co-sponsors of the conference.

For his part, Clinton codified a few basics that almost everyone in the movement still agrees on. He called for "logical organization, easy-to-read design features" and the use of "common, everyday words" whenever possible. He pushed the use of "you" and other pronouns," short sentences, and the active voice ("the director wrote the memo," not "the memo was written by the director").

Yes, this is the same president whose parsing of "is" left a special prosecutor scratching his head.

A worldwide effort

Strylowski and hundreds of other practitioners - based in Canada, France, Australia, Japan and a dozen other countries - promote those basics and others, inside the government and out.

Karen Heij of the Netherlands, general manager of the Bureautaal company, which works with private firms as well as the Dutch government, says the need for clearly written documents seems to be universal.

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