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In October, I received a letter from a federal agency that I won't name. The letter was only four paragraphs long, but by the end I was completely baffled. This happens nearly every time I get a letter from the government, and it always disappoints me. The letter told me I might have done one of three things wrong. I understood only one of those things, so if I had done one of the other two things, I was in trouble.

I called the federal agency, and the man on the other end was kind enough to read me every word of the letter, a copy of which was in the inbox of my online account. I knew how to read, I just couldn't comprehend what I was reading. So, his reading it back to me added nothing.

The same bewilderment would hit me each time my late husband would get a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

I don't dislike the federal government in any way. I just wish they would write more clearly.

A few weeks back I had stumbled on a federal website called plainlanguage.gov.

It had its roots with an Arkansas man named Bill Clinton. In 1998, he included these lines in a memo:

"The Federal Government's writing must be in plain language. By using plain language, we send a clear message about what the Government is doing, what it requires, and what services it offers. Plain language saves the Government and the private sector time, effort, and money."

Plain language requirements vary from one document to another, depending on the intended audience. Plain language documents have logical organization, easy-to-read design features, and use:

◼️ common, everyday words, except for necessary technical terms

◼️ ''you'' and other pronouns

◼️ the active voice

◼️ short sentences.

More than a decade later, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. It just had its 10th birthday Oct. 13.

But I suspect the spirit of the act still hasn't made its way through all government departments.

The Plain Language Action and Information Network is the group of federal employees that advocates clear communications from government. I think I love them.

The Plain Language site has guidelines for better writing, the story of how the site came to be, and some fun examples of before and after better writing was applied.

Here's one from the Environmental Protection Agency:

Before: This program promotes efficient water use in homes and businesses throughout the country by offering a simple way to make purchasing decisions that conserve water without sacrificing quality or product performance.

After: This program helps homeowners and businesses buy products that use less water without sacrificing quality or performance.

From the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services:

Before: Medicaid: Apply if you are aged (65 years old or older), blind, or disabled and have low income and few resources. Apply if you are terminally ill and want to receive hospice services. Apply if you are aged, blind, or disabled; live in nursing home care, but can stay at home with special community care services. Apply if you are eligible for Medicare and have low income and limited resources.

(That sounds like it originated from the Department of Redundancy Department.)

After: You may apply for Medicaid if you are:

◼️ Terminally ill and want hospice services

◼️ Eligible for Medicare and have low income and limited resources

◼️ 65 years old or older, blind, or disabled and have low income and few resources and:

◼️ Live in a nursing home

◼️ Need a nursing home care but can stay at home with special community care services.

And this wordy example didn't specify a department:

Before: When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.

After: If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.

The plain language guidelines detail many of the things I have written about over the years. Do these sound familiar?

◼️ Write for your audience

◼️ Choose your words carefully

◼️ Be concise

◼️ Keep it conversational

The people at Plain Language also provide training for government employees who write too opaquely. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has held up lessons for a while.

Please visit the site for some fun, informative reading: plainlanguage.gov.

JUST ONE THING ...

I don't know a lot about the French Revolution. Once when I visited Paris, I tried to visit the Bastille only to learn the prison had been dismantled a couple of centuries earlier by revolutionaries. Oops.

But now I know about Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras. He was from an aristocratic family that had lost its wealth. He served in the military, and after the French people started their revolution against King Louis XVI, the marquis tried to protect the royal family. His plan failed, and he was arrested, tried and sentenced to die in 1790.

After he read his death warrant, the Marquis de Favras said, "I see that you have made spelling mistakes."

Hate the sin, love the word lover.

Sources include GovInfo, PlainLanguage.gov and History101. Reach Bernadette at

[email protected]

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