Plain English Is Toppling Bureaucrats' Tower Of Babble

Each morning for three months, a skinny man wearing eyeglasses and clutching a steaming cup of coffee rode the elevator up to his government office in Washington, D.C., and set about doing a job fit for Superman.

It was Chris Fontecchio’s daunting task to make sense of–and to rewrite–the gobbledygook contained in federal regulations governing geothermal operators so the Bureau of Land Management might comply with a White House memo requiring government agencies to use plain English.

Fontecchio–a lawyer who works as a regulatory analyst for the bureau–is a soldier in America’s curious struggle with the English language, a hero come to rescue the verb. Hunkered down in front of his computer near a potted plant in a nondescript office building, Fontecchio spent hours each day converting convoluted bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo into crisp sentences written in the active voice.

The result: The regulation shrank by half, “surface disturbing activities” became “drilling” and geothermal power-plant operators out West stopped scratching their heads–and ceased calling so often with questions that tie up government employees on the phone and cost taxpayers money.

“You’d be surprised,” Fontecchio said, “but where I went to law school, they told us we didn’t need to use ‘wherefore’ and Latin terms, that we could actually say things in language that everyone could understand.”

So it is that this fall, two unlikely champions of saying what you mean began requiring plain English as a rule. Besides President Clinton’s edict–implemented nationwide by men and women such as Fontecchio–the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Plain English Rule also kicked in on Oct. 1. It requires companies to simplify their investment pospectuses–a change that has corporate lawyers, of all people, reading the newly drafted documents to make sure they are simply worded.

In a nation that continues a raging debate about the value of bilingual education, there are those who think that English alone is at least two languages: one replete with all manner of legal, financial, governmental, medical and academic obfuscations.

But across the land there is a growing effort to be true to the basic constructs of the English language–last seen subjected to excruciating sleights of word by Clinton himself in the Monica Lewinsky case. And the edicts are not guided by simple reverence for the national tongue, but rather by the conviction that time and money are being lost to larded language.

Even the Federal Communications Commission has gotten in on the act, with a forum in October on how phone companies might send out less-confusing monthly statements. Clear phone bills? In Chicago, Ameritech spokesman Dave Onak promises just that: A redesigned, easier-to-understand version will show up in the mailboxes of 12 million customers next year.

“It’s a competitive issue,” Onak said. Customers no longer have the time or patience to decipher confusing bills.

“The company easiest to do business with has the advantage,” he said.

In the case of a government agency such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, sending out clearer form letters about benefits and other issues lessens the need for follow-up letters and cuts down on phone calls from confused veterans, said Melodee Mercer, insurance specialist and lead instructor for reader-focused writing at the department’s Philadelphia insurance center.

The beneficiaries of this dry, bureaucratic process are veterans such as Jock Lindsay, a retired colonel with a master’s degree.

When Lindsay two years ago challenged a VA letter saying his claim could not be processed because the government had no record that he showed up for a physical exam, he discovered how frustrating government gobbledygook can be.

“By the time I figured out the real issue was they thought I had not responded to their request to go to the physical, it was about the fourth or fifth letter between myself and them,” said Lindsay, a program manager for an information technology company.

“I thought the Army was the greatest and most confused bureaucracy, but I found out quickly that the Veterans Administration was much worse.”

Two years ago, he was asked to participate in a VA focus group to help simplify a letter about insurance-payment checks.

Much to the cynical Lindsay’s astonishment, the new letter sang.

“It was in plain, simple English just like you and I talk every day,” Lindsay said.

Lawrence McEnerney, director of writing programs at the University of Chicago, said: “You get weird people supporting good writing because it’s really an ethical issue.

“The SEC, for instance, might be telling companies, ‘You have an ethical or professional responsibility to make people understand.’ “

Nancy Smith, director of the office of investor education and assistance for the SEC, said the changes were overdue.

“These disclosure documents need to start communicating,” she said. “It’s not enough that these things are in the strange and foreign tongue of lawyers.”

For executives at the United Services Automobile Association–a Fortune 500 company based in San Antonio–it became clear even before the SEC rule that something had to be done to help shareholders understand the prospectus and annual report, spokesman Tom Honeycutt said.

The solution: The more complicated financial information was rewritten and moved back, making way for an introductory narrative describing the type of investment and how it works.

“We have an enormous task in front of us,” said Morley Winograd, director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, the federal task force through which the executive memorandum on plain English was issued.

Starting Jan. 1, all new regulations must be written in plain English. The Oct. 1 deadline applied to all new government communications, including letters and publications.

A prime beneficiary of Fontecchio’s work is Richard Hoops, the Nevada-based head of the Bureau of Land Management’s national geothermal program. The simplified regulation, which Fontecchio wrote drawing on Hoops’ expertise, saved Hoops the trouble of dealing repeatedly with befuddled plant operators.

“As our budget gets tightened, we have less time to do some of that kind of stuff,” Hoops said. “It lets us get on with our priorities rather than going off on tangents all the time.”

Still, there are those who doubt the federal government ever will be able to make itself clear.

“If people ever learn what’s being said in Washington, they may want to take over their own government,” said Jim Boren, a political science professor at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla.

Boren has parlayed a former career as a government bureaucrat into that of a satirist with his own Web site lampooning the capital and its excesses.

The effect of soft, convoluted writing is a benign distance, said D. Carroll Joynes, associate dean of the humanities department at the University of Chicago. Sentences constructed in the passive voice have no clear agent, Joynes said; nobody is responsible, nobody is to blame.

But while useful, the plain English movement nationwide should not be confused with English literature, said Martha Stephens of the National Association of Investment Clubs.

“I still haven’t heard anybody call and say, ‘Oh, I just read this investment statement and it’s fabulous,” she said.

Nor is it always easy to remain on the plain-English highway. Even those at the center of efforts to write and speak clearly occasionally make unfortunate detours. Describing Ameritech’s bill-simplification process, Onak said without breathing:

“We did a series of extensive research over the past two years looking at ways that we could deliver more attentive service to our customers, and based on that research we prioritized a variety of operational changes to meet those customer needs.”


The phone company’s got your number.

Comments are closed.