Legislation Pending in U.S. Congress
By Thom Haller
Thom Haller is the Director of the Center
for Plain Language in Washington DC.
We know usable content matters. Now we have an opportunity to share this
news with our Congressional representatives and fellow U.S. citizens.
On March 1, 2006, witnesses testified before the House Government Reform
Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs. Their testimony
supported what plain language and usability experts have long known: Clear,
concise, easy to understand regulations will save the government (and
taxpayers) time and money.
This testimony occurred in support of the Regulation in Plain Language
Act of 2006 (H.R. 4809), one day after it was introduced in the House
of Representatives by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI). Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA)
is co-sponsoring this bill; plain language advocates hope to encourage
other House members to follow his example in the immediate future.
Annetta L.Cheek, vice-chair of the Center for Plain Language, offered
several examples, during the March 1 testimony, demonstrating the convoluted
language often used in regulations. She was joined by Joseph Kimble, law
professor and plain language expert, who cited examples of the government
and private sector firms saving money by using clear language in communications,
including forms and letters.
Cheek also explained that poor language has a “trickle down effect.”
In other words, when the government issues a difficult-to-understand regulation,
other agencies, organizations, and businesses are likely to incorporate
that language into their own documents.
The reason for this, Cheek said, may be that these entities fear they
may misinterpret the original content in attempts to clarify it. By using
plain language from the start, the government can help reduce incorrect
interpretations and the costly errors associated with them.
Plain (Not Dumbed-Down) Language
Plain language is language written so that readers can understand it the
first time, without having to re-read the text multiple times to translate
it into usable information. A document’s intended audience determines
what plain language is for the content of that document—meaning
the language is custom tailored for specific groups of people. For example,
plain language for architects could differ greatly from plain language
for educators. Usability is the bottom line.
Plain language is not “dumbed down,” according to
Kimble and Cheek. It’s simply good writing, clear and concise, that
avoids jargon and incoherent sentence structures. Experts—and most
writers—agree that writing clearly can be challenging. It requires
attention to detail, a keen eye for ambiguous areas, and a thorough
understanding of the document’s intended audience.
And, to write clearly, a document’s author(s) must fully comprehend
the subject matter and be able to translate it into accessible content.
It’s also impossible to hide uncertainties and ambiguities in clearly
Implications for Usability Experts
H.R. 4809 has many implications for usability professionals, including:
New contracts: Government employees are often immersed in the
world of convoluted “government-speak.” They may need assistance
in preparing plain language content. Contracts may blossom out of the
need to meet the requirements of the bill.
Opportunities for educators: Government employees may seek plain
language classes or seminars, and federal agencies may become interested
in hiring educators to present workshops for employees whose jobs entail
regular writing assignments.
Employment opportunities: Should the bill become law, government
and private sector employers will need to ensure that they have content
experts on staff who are skilled plain language writers. Since most usability
professionals understand and adhere to the tenets of plain language, this
scenario would likely present them with new employment opportunities in
a variety of settings.
Currently, the H.R. 4809 is in the earliest stages of the legislative
process. The Committee on Government Reform must decide whether or not
to present the bill to the House. To become law, the bill must pass through
the House and Senate, and be signed by the President.
Act Now: If Congress adjourns for the summer without
voting on H.R. 4809, the bill will be considered dead, and the process
must begin anew. For this reason, it’s critical that additional
co-sponsors are signed on, and that as a champion for usability, you contact
your representatives to urge them to move this bill forward.