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|'Plain English' bill advances in Senate|
April 02, 2009
A bill intended to banish bureaucratic language from government letters, forms, brochures and other public documents was cleared Wednesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, would require that government documents be written in plain English, defined by the measure as that which "is clear, concise, well organized, and follows the best practices in language writing."
After passing the House 376-1 last year, a similar bill was on the verge of clearing the Senate in September when Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, placed a hold on the measure. Bennett said he was concerned about its possible effects on the Federal Election Commission.
Full Story: www.govexec.com/story_page.cfm?articleid=42414&dcn=e_gvet
|Geithner calls for tougher standards on risk|
March 26, 2009
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is calling for changes in how the government oversees risk-taking in financial markets, pushing for tougher rules on how big companies manage their finances as well as tighter controls on some hedge funds and money-market mutual funds.
February 23, 2009
Few Americans remember him today, but Maury Maverick was a World War
I hero and, for a time, a member of Congress. He later served as mayor
of San Antonio, a job he lost when his opponents hinted darkly that he
was a “communist fellow traveler” in a day when such hints had bite. He
was an ardent New Dealer who returned to Washington at FDR’s request
during World War II to run something called the United States Smaller
War Plants Corporation.
Maury didn’t fit in all that well
here, because he was at base a plain-spoken Texan. He came back to town
at a time when government was a growth industry peopled by bureaucrats,
technocrats and elitists who were proud of the fact few other than
their peers could understand a word of what they were saying. The flood
of legislation, regulations and unintelligible instructions that
continues to this day had just begun, and Maury found himself spending
more and more time trying to figure out what the bureaucrats in his own
little agency were actually saying.
By early 1944 Maury had
had enough. He wrote what The Washington Post at the time called “the
most refreshing and … effective memo ever written in the Federal
This memo coined the word “gobbledygook,” used to
describe the incomprehensible way government bureaucrats communicate
their ideas to each other and their superiors — and, unfortunately, to
the public, the ultimate target of their ideas. Maury instructed those
working for him to “Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls
people up. For Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about
… Anyone using the words ‘activation’ or ‘implementation’ will be shot.”
Post reported that Maury had tried for several hours without success to
understand a report written in “bureaucratese” by one of his
assistants, threw the report down, grabbed his Dictaphone and dictated
the memo. He told the reporter that, on finishing it, “I was relieved.
I felt as though my soul had been cleansed. For years I have been
confused and frustrated by this strange language that’s used around
|War on (buzz)words|
August 01, 2008
Bad writing isn't just poor form, it's a national security issue.
Consider the following passages. The first is an adaptation, in modern Pentagonese, of the second:
The smaller and more agile forces collected here represent a select and elite band of highly motivated warfighters. In the event of adverse battlefield consequences, senior leadership will ensure that participants are suitably recognized in their next quarterly evaluation. Regardless of the maladaptations of combatants, the current operational environment will leverage their inherent capabilities and capacities and enhance total-force interoperability. Non-participants will regret that they did not have an integrated vision of our potential for full-spectrum dominance.
Which is to say,
[KING HENRY V]
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.1
No one expects the U.S. Department of Defense and the services to write like Shakespeare. But the disparity between these examples isn't just amusing, it's harmful to our security and unfair to the American taxpayer.
Bad writing in the Defense Department undermines U.S. national security. Alive and well in the corridors of the Pentagon and throughout the services, the misuse and abuse of language obscures major defense issues, alienates non-defense experts, and suffocates ideas. Put simply, bad writing wastes time and money. The United States can ill afford such waste in peacetime, much less in war.
Compared to troop retention problems or IEDs, poor writing may seem a distressingly petty complaint. When we consider how far-reaching its effects are, however, bad writing becomes anything but petty. While serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1984, General John W. Vessey Jr. put it bluntly, "From my own experience, I can tell you, more has been screwed up on the battlefield and misunderstood in the Pentagon because of a lack of understanding of the English language than any other single factor."2
Or as Mortimer D. Goldstein, who had a 25-year career in the State Department, responded to Vessey's words, "I suspect that the problem . . . is not so much a lack of understanding of English as the failure to write it so that it can be understood."3 From 1985 to 1986, Goldstein published a series of 20 articles titled, "Disciplined Writing and Career Development" in State Magazine.4 I would bet there is no better guide to, as Goldstein called it, "writing style and technique as they affect the practical task of communication."
How does bad writing hurt U.S. national security? Why is it worth getting worked up over wordiness, passive voice, and overused jargon?
Let's start with an example of Defense Department writing. This is the official definition of "Strategic Communication" as published in the Quadrennial Defense Review Execution Roadmap:
The ability to focus USG processes and efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives through the use of coordinated information, themes, plans, programs, and actions synchronized with other elements of national power.
To be clear, my aim is not to skewer the idea, but to challenge how it is expressed. First, note that as a definition of a noun, the above is not a complete sentence, but an exceedingly long noun phrase. It contains seven verbs (focus, understand, engage, create, strengthen, preserve, advance) and two adjectives derived from verbs (coordinated and synchronized). More than a few of these words are favorites in the Pentagon, surely familiar to a DOD audience. Even so, most readers probably need three reads to begin to understand what "Strategic Communication" means. Most are probably left wondering which verbs take priority. Shall we go forth to focus, to engage, to strengthen, or to synchronize? How do "processes" differ from "efforts"? And why specify "conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives?" Is there any time when the United States does not seek such conditions?
The definition is a victim of its authors' collective thoroughness,
a common pitfall in any large bureaucracy. In their attempt to include
every angle and every aspect, to describe each possibly related
component, to leave no stone unturned, the authors garbled the real
meaning almost beyond recognition. ...
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