Last Updated:November 27 @ 07:38 am

Plain language law off to a spotty start

By Calvin Woodward

WASHINGTON (AP) - An effort to make the government write so people can understand what they're reading is off to a spotty start.

A year after an anti-gobbledygook law took effect, federal agencies are still churning out plenty of incomprehensible English, according to the Center for Plain Language, which released a "report card" Thursday grading agencies on their progress - or lack of it.

The Agriculture Department got top marks among the dozen agencies checked: an A for meeting the law's basic requirements and a B for taking supporting actions such as training staff to write clearly. Faring the worst, Veterans Affairs flunked on both counts.

The Plain Writing Act required agencies to start using clear language in October in documents that provide information to the public. But there's no penalty for noncompliance. By now, all agencies are supposed to have a senior officer responsible for plain language, a section of their websites devoted to the subject and a broader process in motion to ensure they begin communicating more clearly with citizens and businesses.

The mixed results of the center's analysis "show that we still have a long way to go to make government forms and documents simpler and easier for taxpayers to understand," said Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, sponsor of the legislation. The center's chairwoman, Annetta Cheek, agreed. "You do see more documents coming out that are in relatively good, plain language," she said. But "it's very spotty."

The Defense Department has been known for its addiction to baffling acronyms, not to mention a 26-page cookie recipe that covered "flow rates of thermoplastics by extrusion plastometer" and a command that ingredients "shall be examined organoleptically," meaning looked at, smelled, touched or tasted. The department earned a B for meeting the law's basic requirements, as did the Labor Department and National Archives. The Environmental Protection Agency, Justice Department, Transportation Department, Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration and Small Business Administration were graded C on carrying out the checklist of duties required under the law. Homeland Security scored D, just above VA's F.

The appraisal was harsher when agencies were judged on living up to the spirit of the law with ambitious training, tracking of progress and other activities considered "meat on the bones," as Cheek put it. Labor, Transportation, EPA and VA were assigned F; Defense, Homeland Security and Justice got D; the archives, SBA and SSA earned C; and the Agriculture Department and HHS each got B.

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  1. Art BlenkleComment by Art Blenkle
    July 20, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    Regulations are written by Lawyers ,for Lawyers.If they were written in plain English,we would not need Lawyers!

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  2. thomasjeffersonComment by thomasjefferson
    July 20, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    Politicians and lawyers have no idea how to “plain speak”

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  3. Gary L PerryComment by Gary L Perry
    July 20, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    Another fine example of Congress and Government agencies not following the laws they enact.
    This is the lobbyists and attorneys making the wording so complex so that it will deter citizens from reading and understanding the bills.
    Hell of an idea, why not “no more new Bills” unless it is undoing current rules and regulations.
    We have way to many laws and regulations at both the Federal and State level.

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  4. clarkentComment by clarkent
    July 20, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    The Congress that tells us to read it to find out what is in, can’t even read it themselves. Too much gooblygoop. Just vote along party lines and sort it out later. By then it is too late.

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  5. gimmesometruthComment by gimmesometruth
    July 21, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    Congress is occupied predominantly by lawyers who speak, and think, in legalese. Convoluted language allows them to spin in any direction. While plain English language is a laudable endeavor, It must be paired with a ONE-issue legislation like what Sen. Rand Paul is proposing. No more legislation with so many attachments, it resembles a string of Christmas lights. For more ideas to reign in this out-of-control Behemoth, go to

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  6. FlaJimComment by FlaJim
    July 22, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    Here’s a simple idea: Read a new law or regulation to 10 random passers by on the street. If a simple majority understand what’s being said, it passes muster.

    The problem with lofty language is that it leaves open a very liberal interpretation. Perhaps, that’s what is intended, however. Lawmakers and rule makers hate to be constrained by literal insterpretation.

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