December 5, 2011

George Orwell and the long fight for readable government documents


Winner of the 2011 WonderMark Award for unclear writing

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy,” George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language“—a famous attack on the obscurity and inanity of legalese.

At the Washington Post, Suzy Khimm writes about the ongoing battle against inscrutable English in governmental documents:

Fed up with… gibberish, a small but growing band of civil servants, lawmakers and consultants is leading the charge against bureaucratic legalese. Their mission isn’t just to cut down on government forms in triplicate. They believe that Washington is dysfunctional on a more basic level and that to fix the government, the public needs to understand what the government is telling them.

There are some signs of progress. The IRS, of all institutions, won the Center for Plain Language‘s 2011 ClearMark Award for simplifications and improvements it made to an “Additional Child Tax Credit” form. In 2010, President Obama signed The Plain Writing Act which dictates that government agencies must use “writing that the intended audience can readily understand.” The law went into effect in October, 2011, however Khimm notes that the law “has no penalties for unplain writing, and the federal government has yet to appoint its own editor in chief to monitor the agencies’ efforts.”

Meanwhile, if you find any particularly egregious examples of confusing writing, you can submit them to The Center for Plain Language as a nomination for its WonderMark Award: ”Know of a confusing form, unreadable document, nonsensical sign, or other example of truly bad communication? It could win a WonderMark Award!” The finalists and winners are announced in May.

The “winner” for the 2011 WonderMark Award was a CareFirst insurance document that will look regrettably familiar to most of us.