Plain Writing Act – at Last, a Law that Everyone Can Support

From Deborah S. Bosley, an associate professor of English at UNC Charlotte:

Amid all the chaos around passage of the health
care reform bill, the public missed an important
bill that passed the House with a wide bipartisan
vote of 386 to 33. This bill has 10 co-sponsors,
including N.C. Reps. Mel Watt (D) and Virginia
Foxx (R).

Rep. Bruce Braley’s, D-Iowa, Plain Writing Act of
2010 (HR 946) requires the federal government to write all new
publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a
“clear, concise, well-organized” manner that follows the best
practices of plain language writing.

Why is this bill important? Because information we receive from
the government, or forms we have to fill out, often are overly
complex and frustrating. If we are to function as full, participating
citizens in this democracy, we must be able to understand the
information we receive from our government. Clear information
is, I believe, a civil right. How can we agree to something, sign our names, obey compliance rules, receive benefits and
services, or even know who we’re voting for if information is not
written and designed for easy understanding?

Here’s the “before” example from the Department of Health and
Human Services’ Handbook Assuring Access to Essential Health
Care:

“Title I of the CARE Act creates a program of formula and
supplemental competitive grants to help metropolitan areas with
2,000 or more reported AIDS cases meet emergency care needs
of low-income HIV patients. Title II of the Ryan White Act
provides formula grants to States and territories for operation of
HIV service consortia in the localities most affected but the
epidemic, provision of home and community-based care,
continuation of insurance coverage for persons with HIV
infection, and treatments that prolong life and prevent serious
deterioration of health. Up to 10 percent of the funds for this
program can be used to support Special Projects of National
Significance.”

This example is written at a 20th grade level (almost enough
education for a Ph.D.), and the language is needlessly wordy
and jargony (“consortia”??). This version clearly does not make it
easy for the intended audience to understand.
Here’s the revised version:

“Low income people living with HI
V/AIDS gain, literally, years,
through the advanced drug treatments and ongoing care
supported by HRSA’s Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.”
This revision is written at a high school grade level and focuses
on the relevant information.

As Braley said, “There is no reason why the federal government
can’t write forms and other public documents in a way we can all
understand…. Plain, straightforward language makes it easy for
taxpayers to understand what the federal government is doing
and what services it is offering.”

No one ever complained that information from the government
was too easy to understand. Business also gains from the use of
plain language: studies show that plain language builds trust,
and trust increases profits and numbers of customers. Everyone
benefits.

Contact your senators and urge them to pass the bill. Demand to understand.

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