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Plain speech protected civil right

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A lot of people are counting on your inability to understand their writing to protect their jobs and enhance their companies’ bottom lines.

The Center for Plain Language, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, states quite clearly “plain language is a civil right.”

If that’s true, our civil rights are violated when we read most government documents, credit card contracts and other convoluted communiques that seem intended to confuse rather than to clarify.

In conjunction with Scribes, the American Society of Legal Writers, the CPL will host Clarity 2012, its fifth annual international conference May 21-23 in Washington. At that gathering, a lot of words will be spoken about the need to speak and write in ways that listeners and readers can understand.

The groups will present awards to public offices and departments and private concerns that have made strides toward getting rid of gobbledygook in their dealings with average Americans.

They shouldn’t have to provide incentives. There’s actually a federal law that is supposed to clear the linguistic kudzu out of our dealings with the government.

On Oct. 13, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law. A memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget justifies the law by outlining the benefits of plain writing.

It can “reduce questions from the public to agency staff, improve compliance with regulations, reduce resources spent on enforcement, reduce errors on forms and applications and reduce time spent addressing errors.”

The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reports that law professor Joseph Kimble has discovered a revised letter resulting in $2 million in new tax revenue in a year.

Apparently, businesspersons weren’t paying the tax because they couldn’t understand why they were supposed to pay it.

Rein further cites Kimble’s discovery that calls to a Department of Veterans Affairs regional call center fell from about 1,100 a year to about 200 after one explanatory letter was rewritten.

However, if you’re in a profession that uses lingo unique to that profession, you know that explaining the details of your everyday working life to an outsider can be difficult and time-consuming.

Therefore, some government bureaucrats have been slow to jump on the “plain talk” bandwagon for fear that it might eventually take them for a ride to the unemployment office.

Speaking in one’s own code makes us feel special.

It’s true about little boys’ cliques and little girls’ cliques.

It’s true about young people understanding text message shorthand that befuddles and irritates adults taught to speak and write in complete sentences.

On the other hand, sometimes those internal languages are also quite necessary.

They’re necessary when military and other national security personnel must encode messages to keep secrets from the enemy.

They’re necessary when a dumbed-down version of academic research could lead to misunderstandings in the classroom and “junk science” becoming part of the public discourse.

But when businesses deliberately insert five pages of complex legalese into a monthly bill knowing that consumers will toss it aside because they have no time to decipher it, it is time for government action.

And when government agencies print literature intended for the general public in rhetoric seemingly dredged up from one of Howard Cosell’s vintage rants, it’s time for lay people to help the specialists with the translations.

Gina Logue can be contacted at glogue@murfreesboropost.com.

Read more from:
Barack Obama, Civil Rights, First Amendment, Free Speech, Gina Logue, Politics, Tennessee, Voices
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