Friday, May 11, 2012

Plain English in Government Regulations

Rep. Bruce Braley has proposed the Plain Regulations Act, which would require federal agencies to use plain language in all new and substantially revised proposed and final regulations. In the May 2012 issue of the Michigan Bar Journal, Dr. Annetta Cheek, a  veteran plain English advocate, counters arguments against the proposal—arguments that  one often  hears in any discussion of plain English proposals:

Criticism 1: A law requiring regulations

to be written in plain language would

be used to slow down or derail the

regulatory process by those who oppose

government’s role in regulating.

Criticism 2: It’s impossible to measure

compliance with the plain-language

requirement. Measurement will further

tie up the regulatory process.

Criticism 3: Plain language is imprecise.

Criticism 4: It’s too hard to write

regulations in plain language.

Senators Claire McCaskill, Tom Coburn, and Susan Collins have introduced a similar bill in the Senate.


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When I was writing tax regulations in the late 1970s, a similar movement to write in plain English took hold. The folks who want things written in plain English don't realize that the issue isn't one of using "plain" English words or "plain" English sentences. What makes regulations difficult to read is that they are interpreting statutes loaded with multi-prong definitions, numerous exceptions, and references to terms used in industry that are unusual, long, compound words. Technical precision in terms of the scope, depth, and application of a regulation require the use of precise language.

The tendency to want to simplify, to express thoughts in 140-character tweets or by using the gibberish of texting, contributes to the complaints about precise language. Perhaps the focus should be on improving Americans' ability to read and write, and to think through complex concepts that cannot be expressed in third-grade English.

As for the introduction of the proposed statute, perhaps Congress ought to begin with its own issuances. Simplify the law, and you'll simplify the regulations interpreting that law.

Posted by: Jim Maule | May 12, 2012 7:01:07 AM

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