EDITORIAL - Speak freely, but speak plainly

(The Freeman) - September 22, 2014 - 12:00am

CAN clear thinking be legislated? At least two lawmakers seem to think so. Sen. Grace Poe and Bohol Rep. Rene Relampagos filed bills last year to require the use of plain writing in all government websites, publications, letters, instructions and forms.

 Clearly worded government forms, Relampagos said in House Bill 3494, will prevent the waste of time and money, and help applicants receive government services faster. The bills are inspired by the Plain Writing Act that U.S. President Barack Obama signed in 2010, which required “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”

 A lot of government rules sound like this: “When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.” The Plain Language Action and Information Network , a group of federal employees in the United States, recommends this clearer instruction: “If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.”

 Examples abound here at home, too. The rules for implementing the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees include this: “As a general rule, when a request or petition, whether written or verbal, can be disposed of promptly and expeditiously, the official and employee in charge to whom the same is presented shall do so immediately, without discrimination, and in no case beyond fifteen working days from receipt of the request or petition.”

 Would this not work as well? “As a general rule, government officials and employees must respond to requests within 15 working days after receiving them.”

 It’s unclear why plain writing has not become more popular in public life, or why jargon and ambiguity have persisted. Perhaps the English journalist and novelist George Orwell was correct, when he wrote that political language was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

 Windbags, however, won’t suffer penalties even if House Bill 3494 and Senate Bill 1092 became laws. Both bills mention no penalties. They only require that agencies report what they’ve done to implement plain writing in public services. Senator Poe’s version also proposes an initial appropriation of P10 million for the Civil Service Commission to create a Plain Writing Section, which will draft guidelines for all agencies.

 Both bills await approval by congressional committees.  And if our experience with the Freedom of Information campaign is any sign, it is unlikely that plain writing in government will be required soon.


Still, plain writing is a challenge journalists must face. Search engines, smartphones and social media continue to make official documents and sources more accessible. But do our news stories and commentaries present information with the clarity and depth that the public needs? Have we informed ourselves enough to explain complex ideas that may save lives? Imagine, for instance, the losses that could have been avoided if those pre-Yolanda warnings about storm surges had been explained better.

 Plain writing doesn’t mean avoiding difficult ideas or technical terms. It means taking the time to seek credible sources and to read, until we understand these ideas and terms enough to explain them clearly. Plain writing demands that we give up fashionable phrases that have become meaningless from overuse, like “integrating quality solutions” and “promoting an inclusive society”. (Both appear as examples of what to avoid in the Plain Language Guidelines, posted on www.plainlanguage.gov. But you’ll probably find them in most management handbooks and government websites.)

 Plain writing demands honesty and economy of words.  It compels us to avoid dressing up a delay as a “negative slippage”, to inspect rather than “to conduct an ocular inspection” and to simply write rather than “to put things in writing.” The advice Orwell wrote 68 years ago holds true today: Write simply and precisely, and fight “avoidable ugliness.”


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