Outside the public relations office of the Department of Commerce hangs a framed quotation from H. G. Wells: "No passion on earth, neither love nor hate, is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft." It is fair warning of the close to religious revival gaining strength within the building -- a Plain English editing movement in which this most elemental of passions sways even the machines.
That's right, the machines. In the Department of Commerce, if someone types the word "input" or "utilize" or "effectuate" in a piece of official correspondence, the word processor spits it out and gives the writer an XXXX instead. The list of programmed "hit words" comes from the commerce secretary, Malcolm Baldrige. So does the inspiration that has powered this Plain English movment since 1981, when Baldrige took office, and which has spread it to several other departments.
Baldrige sees making his people write in English as simple good management. In addition to the word-eating computer, he has given the department a meticulously detailed style sheet, a series of staff revival meetings with a Plain English outside consultant and an atmosphere of constant linguistic exhortation. From all indications, the Commerce staff is feeling the fervor.
"It gets to be like a game," says Patricia Corken, director of the 13-person team that handles Baldrige's correspondence. "You hear people in the halls, catching each other." Baldrige, says PR Director B. Jay Cooper, likes to walk out of his office and say things like 'So- and-so's been using 'maximize' again, and I want him to stop it."
In the muddy world of government English, Baldrige is an inspirational figure who demands prose "halfway between Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey with no bureaucratese," and has been known to send letters that read in their entirety, "Dear Mr. Chairman: I agree." His three-page style sheet covers everything from forbidden words and phrases ("parameters," "mutually beneficial," "targeted," ugly new words ending in "ize") to nondiscriminatory usage, along with the occasional plaintive admonition: "Subsequent means after, not before." His writers no longer use redundancies such as "serious crisis" or "end result" -- at least not above his signature -- or tell people that they are deeply concerned about this matter at the present time. They observe a one- page limit on press releases and letters; the 1983 annual report weighs in at 33 pages with appendices.
Of course, the movement, like any religious revival, has its holdouts. " 'Prior to' is an awfully hard habit to break," Corken admits. There are those immune to the spirit of the thing who, when the computer zaps "mutually beneficial" out of their copy, come rightback with "mutually agreeable." Such backsliders need the movement's slightly wacky heavy artillery -- for instance, the classes with Dr. Thomas Murawski.
Murawski, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who used to teach English to cadets, cranked all 3,000 of Baldrige's employees through what he calls his "medicine show" in 1983. Since then, he has purveyed the rising interest in Plain English into a full-time consulting career. Murawski likes dramatics. Retained by one company to clean up its writing, he started by refusing to sign the contract because he couldn't understand it. He attacks structures that reduce wording to noncommittal timidity, such as seven-level review proc for memos, and calls Washington "the heart of writing darkness." In class, he puts a heinous piece of in-house writing on a screen and, with 500 people, leads a cathartic group edit.
Such hoopla seems endemic to the movement. Murawski dates much of the interest in Plain English -- in private corporations, at least -- to the late 1970s, when a new chairman of the Dana Corp. in New York publicly burned a 22-inch stack of corporate manuals and replaced them with a one-page typed statement of corporate philosophy. The machines get in on this too; an earlier, feistier version of the XXXX-ing program beeped and blinked when a writer stepped out of line.
Why such gimmickry in the eminently serious matter of helping people become comprehensible? Mainly, it seems, because it's the only way to get anyone's attention. Plain English barely figures in the Grace Commission report or any other on government waste, even though the savings in time and money of eliminating bureaucratese would be incalculable. Malcolm Barr, Baldrige's director of news relations and a zealous convert, started by pummeling his staff with stylebooks and then went further: he cut the number of boilerplate releases per year in half and knocked thousands of people off his mailing list.
That little maneuver saved half a million dollars in postage the first year, but that isn't the really encouraging thing about the new religion. What's really encouraging is its tendency to promote the inevitable companion of clearer writing: clearer thought. As Cooper and Corken and Murawski all note, the pressures against taking a stand, any stand, on paper in Washington are constant; add seven levels of revision and the best you can hope for is Jell-O. Making people stand up to those pressures requires not just pep talks but full-scale behavior modification.
Yet here they are, correcting each other's points of style in the corridor, falling over one another to emend and extend the style sheet. Baldrige -- who once (legend has it) would ask before signing a staff-written letter, "Just tell me, am I saying yes or no?" -- now runs a fiefdom where adherence to the style sheet is Pavlovian. Corken and Cooper hover enthusiastically around a visitor, explaining the one-page letter limit.
"Regardless of subject matter?" says the visitor.
"Subject matter," snap Cooper and Corken, nearly in unison, "that's on the hit list."