Obama administration officials looking for tips on to how to write in plain English should talk to Debra Isabel Huron.
She reached out on Friday after the Federal Eye wrote about a new White House memo devoid of plain English that implored federal agencies to . . . use plain English.
Cass Sunstein, the administration’s top regulatory lawyer, told agency bosses in his memo that “public participation cannot occur if the requirements of rules are unduly complex and if members of the public are unable to obtain a clear sense of the content of those requirements.”
The Eye suggested that Sunstein should have taken his own advice by simply writing: “Keep it simple, because the public won’t understand what you’re trying to say unless it’s written clearly.”
But Huron, a plain-language consultant based in Canada, said The Eye’s suggestion was off the mark.
“Without being overly harsh,” Huron wrote, The Eye’s rewrite contributed to the perception that “plain language is about ‘dumbing down’ text.”
“Your rewrite did not accurately reflect the substance or nuance contained in the original,” Huron explained. “In fact, your rewrite is misleading. It’s not the public that needs to understand what YOU (the public official) is trying to do that is at the heart of the original sentence, it’s what the PUBLIC needs to be able to do with the info conveyed by the public officials. This slapdash approach to plain writing is what gives it a bad name. It’s something I see people in my writing workshops do all the time when I ask them to rewrite a sentence or short paragraph.”
Huron added: “Plain writing is not simply about writing directly to the reader or making everything so ‘user friendly’ that the original intention and meaning gets lost. We cannot ignore the valid information that the author intended to convey. When we do, we can indeed be accused of ‘dumbing down’ the text. I refuse to see this as a hallmark of the plain language approach.
So how would Huron rewrite Sunstein’s sentence? She suggests:
“The public will not be able to follow the rules if the requirements you set out are too complex, or if they cannot easily understand the content.”
Fair enough — and no hard feelings.
Most of all, it’s nice to know that our Canadian neighbors are concerned enough to reach out.
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