Four days on the job was all Alfred E. Kahn, the new chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, needed. It was bad enough that he was "absolutely deluged with pieces of paper," as he told a White House briefing last week. He didn't like what he was reading either, and fired off a memorandum to all bureau and office heads, division and section chiefs, with carbon copies to other board members, on "the style of Board orders and chairman's letters."
As a public service, The Washington Post is reprinting the full text, which we hope will be ready by all the writers of letters and regulations in this town.
One of my peculiarities, which I must beg you to indulge if I am to retain my sanity (possible at the expense of yours!) is an abhorrence of the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook.
The disease is almost universal, and the fight against it endless. But it is a fight worth making, and I ask your help in this struggle.
May I ask you, please, to try very hard to write Board orders and, even more so, drafts of letters for my signature, in straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose - as though you are talking to or communicating with real people. I once asked a young lawyer who wanted us to say "we deem it inappropriate" to try that kind of language out on his children - and if they did not drive him out of the room with their derisive laughter, to disown them.
I suggest the test is a good one: try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react. (And then decide, on the basis of their reactions, whether you still want them as friends.)
I cannot possibly in a single communication give you more than a small fraction of the kinds of usages I have in mind. Here are just a few:
1. One of our recent show cause orders contained this language: "all interested persons be and they hereby are directed to show cause . . ." The (emphasized) words are obviously rebundant, as well as archaic.
2. Every time you are tempted to use "herein," "hereinabove," "hereinunder," or similarly, "therein" and its corresponding variants, try "here" or "there" or "above" or "below" and see if it doesn't make just as much sense.
3. The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says "he was hit by a stone," than "I hit him with a stone." The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and humane. (There are, of course, some circumstances in which the use of the passive is unavoidable; please try to confine it to those situations.)
4. This one is, I recognize, a matter of taste: some people believe in maintaining standards of the language and others (like the late but unlamented editor of Webster's Third International) do not. But unless you feel strongly, would you please try to remember that "date" was for more than two thousand years and is still regarded by most literate people as plural (the singular is "datum"), and that (this one goes back even longer) the singular is "criterion," and "criteria" is plural.Also, that for at least from the 17th through most of the 20th century, "presently" meant "soon" or "immediately" and not "now." The use of "presently" in the latter context is another pomposity: why not "now?" Or, if necessary, "currently?"
5. Could you possibly try to make the introduction of letters somewhat less pompus than "this is in reference to your letter dated May 42, 1993, regarding (or concerning, or in regard to, or with reference to) . . ." That just doesn't sound as though it is coming from a human being. Why not, for example, "The practice of which you complain in your letter of May 42 is one that has troubled me for a long time." Or "I have looked into the question you raise in your letter of October 14, and am happy to be able to report . . ."Or something like that?
6. Why use "regarding" or "concerning" or "with regard to," when the simple word "about" would do just as well? Unless you are trying to impress someone: but are you sure you want to impress anyone who would be impressed by such circumlocutions? There is a similar pompous tendency to use "prior to," when what you really mean is "before." "Prior to" should be used only when in fact the thing that comes before is, in a sense, a condition of what follows, as in the expression "a prior condition."
7. One of my pet peeves is the rampant misuse of "hopefully." That word is an adverb, and makes sense only as it modifies a verb and means "with hope." It is possible to walk hopefully into a room, if one is going into the room with the hope of finding something (or not finding something) there. It is not intelligent to say "hopefully the criminal will make his identity known," because the meaning is not that he will do so with hope in his heart, and he is subject of the verb "make."
8. My last imposition on you for today is the exessive use of "appropriate" or "inappropriate," when what the writer really means is either "legal" or "illegal," "proper" or "improper," "desirable" or "undesirable," "fitting" or "unfitting," or simply "this is what I want (or do not want) to do."
9. A final example of pomposity, probably, is this memorandum itself.
I have heard it said that style is not substance, but without style what is substance?