I found this old essay by chance today. It's not bad, and reminds me that I was probably smarter a decade ago than I am now! The Medicare fraud letter remains chilling, and I still believe that the plain language movement is part of a far larger cultural trend that has immiserated us to no end. In any case, to the three of you who still read my blog, enjoy!
Communications and Entertainment: a
Brief Analysis of the Plain Language Movement
shamelessness of the rhetorical question “What do people want?” lies in the
fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity
it specifically seeks to annul.
Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry” Dialectic
of Enlightenment, p. 116.
is a certain irony to the fact that George Orwell is both the author of Nineteen
Eighty Four and the essay Politics and the English Language. Nineteen Eighty Four has become a kind
of cautionary tale about governments and their relationship to the truth,
alerting people to the dangers of “newspeak” and the manufacture of truth by
governments. However, Politics and
the English Language, where Orwell
extols the virtues of clear and simple language, has itself become the
foundational text for the Plain Language Movement. His six
rules for clear writing, such as avoid the passive voice, form the grammatical
canon for the movement, which seeks to eradicate “gobbledygook” from
legal and government communication, to ensure greater “readability” and
“clarity”. And what began as a movement
opposed to government and legal standards of writing has now been fully embraced
by those institutions.
the broad aims of the movement, and the depth of its transformative power in
shaping how governments communicate with their citizens, it is perhaps
surprising how little sociological research has been done to examine the ramifications
of the Plain Language Movement on public discourse. Rather
it has been assumed that plain language is good and necessary thing. My own experience as a bureaucrat can testify
to the near universal acceptance of plain language as a good thing. This
brief essay will attempt to suggest some avenues for more closely examining how
plain language, far from engaging citizens, annuls that engagement by removing
citizens from the democratic process,
by focusing on ends to the detriment of means.
is plain language? The United State
government's Plain Language (www.plainlanguage.gov) website has several
A word about "plain
English." The phrase certainly shouldn't connote drab and dreary language.
Actually, plain English is typically quite interesting to read. It's robust and
direct—the opposite of gaudy, pretentious language. You achieve plain English
when you use the simplest, most straightforward way of expressing an idea. You
can still choose interesting words. But you'll avoid fancy ones that have
everyday replacements meaning precisely the same thing.
Bryan Garner, from Legal Writing in Plain English,
2001, pp xiv
The next definition is from Professor
Robert Eagleson, an Australian scholar of plain language:
Plain English is clear,
straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is
language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence
construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the
English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on
the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure
that their audience understands the message easily.
examples illustrate the broad aims of the movement: To eliminate ornament from language, and to
make documents “readable”. A writer is
to find the “simplest” way of expressing an idea, and one is to avoid “fancy”
words when “ordinary” words will do. If one does this, the “audience” will
understand their text (or specifically their message, a very important word indeed) “easily”. It is important to note that complicated
language “distracts”, presumably because it forces one to think for a moment about what one is hearing. The focus of both
definitions is on economy as the hallmark of clarity. However, what does
clarity mean in practice for the Plain Language Movement?
dramatic effect Plain Language has on government communications is best shown
through an example. One of the more
chilling examples is the following, from US government's plain language website. It is important to keep in mind that this transformation
is being sold as an exemplar of clear,
Medicare Fraud Letter
The Medicare Beneficiary Services receives a lot of
Medicare fraud correspondence every year. To reach their customers more
effectively, they took an already short letter and made it even shorter and to
Investigators at the contractor will review the
facts in your case and decide the most appropriate course of action. The first
step taken with most Medicare health care providers is to reeducate them about
Medicare regulations and policies. If the practice continues, the contractor
may conduct special audits of the providers medical records. Often, the
contractor recovers overpayments to health care providers this way. If there is
sufficient evidence to show that the provider is consistently violating
Medicare policies, the contractor will document the violations and ask the
Office of the Inspector General to prosecute the case. This can lead to
expulsion from the Medicare program, civil monetary penalties, and
We will take two steps to look at this matter: We
will find out if it was an error or fraud.
We will let you know the result.
is important to note that this is a letter regarding an allegation of
fraud. The first letter goes to some
length to explain the process to the correspondent, and the possible outcomes. The second omits this information, and
instead informs the correspondent that they will be told the outcome only when
the government has completed its investigation.
An opportunity to describe a government's process becomes a statement of government action. However, which letter is really “clearer”?
of providing the reader an opportunity to form their own thoughts, the second
letter, and indeed, many things written in “plain language” are designed to
narrow the interpretive space of communication down to nothing. Similar to Walter Benjamin’s views on newspaper
writing, the government strains to interpret
“what the people want”, so no other interpretation but the government’s
interpretation is possible. The second
letter in the example explains, while
the first letter describes.
is where the idea of the government “message” is of supreme importance. A politician, or a government, must remain
“on message”, in other words, they must stick to the script which allows as
little latitude as possible for interpretation.
However, through plain language, the idea of the message is sold as
populist clarity. The second letter,
ominous as it sounds, also leaves a clear message – the government is acting.
The key message of the second letter is the sense that the government is
“doing something”, not that the citizen has a role in that activity.
of citizens as busy, simple people,
who want facts and to see action, is reminiscent of Horkheimer and Adorno’s
views on myth and its relationship to Enlightenment. As they write, “Enlightenment’s mythic terror
springs from a horror of myth. It
detects myth not only in semantically unclarified concepts and words…but in any
human utterance which has no place in the functional context of
self-preservation.” Plain language adherents see complex sentence
constructions and technical vocabularies not as the outcome of complex
government institutions, but as needless and wasteful, as a myth of government
which plain language can eradicate, at least when communicating to
citizens. Instead, it forecloses the very possibility
that governments are complex, restricting that complexity to those who work in
government, who are themselves presumably not average.
language in a government setting presumes people are unwilling to want to
engage with their government in any more than a rudimentary, “practical”
way. It assumes not only that citizens want
their information to be handed to them, without the sense that they, as
citizens in a democracy, have a part to play in shaping that information. It
assumes, in effect, that they want to be entertained
by their government.
is telling that despite nearly 30 years of the plain language movement, as well
as strong support from the very governments it had targeted, voter turnout is
lower than ever and citizen disengagement in Canada has reached an all-time
high. The quote found at the head of
this essay seems more apt than ever: Citizens
are less engaged perhaps because they understand that they are not really
necessary, except on occasion for reasons of legitimacy. Through plain language, the activity of
democratic government has been replaced by politics as light entertainment,
although I appreciate that this brief paper has only offered a glimpse of that.
and perhaps this is the most perplexing question, who would have thought that this
alienation would have been cultivated using the very grammatical rules Orwell
developed as a caution against it?