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Regulations tell Americans how to get benefits, how to meet safety standards, and how to pay their taxes. There are now over 200,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Regulations that are unclear or unreadable make work for the reader and for the agency that issues them. Writing our regulations in a clear and easily readable style would result in a tremendous savings of time and effort for the federal government and for citizens affected by them.

Regulations don’t have to be written in “legalese.” Don’t let anyone convince you that outmoded forms of language are needed in regulations. Plain language works for regulations just as it does for other important forms of written communication.

Yes, Virginia, plain language regulations do exist. In fact, President Clinton issued two separate Executive Orders emphasizing the need for plain language (neither of which has been rescinded). E.O. 12866 says that regulations must be “simple and easy to understand, with the goal of minimizing uncertainty and litigation” (Sec. 1, Par. (b)(12)) and E.O. 12988 says that each regulation must specify its effect “in clear language” (Sec. 3 Par. (b)(2)).

On January 18, 2011, President Obama issued E.O. 13563 — Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review. It states that our regulatory system must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.

Government resources

The Office of the Federal Register supports plain language. See their:

The Register even shows you how to rewrite an existing rule in plain language in Rewriting a Short Rule.

Further reading

  • The American Bar Association urges the federal government to write regulations in plain language.

  • Tom Murawski’s Writing Readable Regulations is a great resource by a pioneering advocate of plain language. Contact Tom for purchase information.

  • Bryan Garner’s 2001 book, Legal Writing in Plain English: A Text with Exercises, is an excellent learning tool for plain legal writing and is very readable by non-lawyers. It clearly explains all our most important techniques. Bryan is one of our most important legal writing experts in the US today. Besides being the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, he has several important books on writing, including Modern American Usage.

  • Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick is a basic learning tool and reference guide for lawyers and other writers of legal documents. It’s concise and easily absorbed. It’s still a best seller of the University of North Carolina Press.