Plain English? Tell it to the Marines

Is it possible for official America to get through the day speaking plain English? Who doesn't remember President Carter's call for such a marvel -- followed all too soon by a cabinet member's first use of "prioritize" in public?

Hope springs this month as taxpayers take a final look at forms whose days may be numbered. As early as 1982 some new forms, rewritten in simple language, will be tried on selected taxpayers. They could go to everybody in 1983. It would be in the spirit of Carter's 1978 executive order requiring federal agencies to keep it simple, not to mention the "plain English" laws passed by four states and pending in a dozen others.

But laws will not do the job alone. It means winning the hearts and minds of officialdom. There must be more and more crumbs of encouragement like Lt. Col. Michael D. Wyly's attack on the word "attrite" in such phrases as "our air strike will attrite their armor" (when he sees the tactic of attrition as a poor substitute for destruction anyway).

No one's going to tell it to this Marine when he writes in the current Marine Corps Gazette: "As for attrite as a verb, let us not politely discourage its use. Pounce on it. Jump up and down on it. Forbid its mention. And, destroym it."

Of course, there is still some work to be done up the line. When General Haig appeared at Senate hearings before confirmation as secretary of state, he used English in a way that drew the attention of the language's home country. A British newspaper parody suggested that "verbs were nouned, nouns verbed, adjectives adverbised" and that the secretary-designate "techniqued a new way to vocabulary his thoughts so as to informationally uncertain anybody listening about what he had actually implicationed."

Few Americans, conscious of the bare possibility of lapses of their own, would be so severe. Yet when the secretary speaks of adding "augmentees" to his staff, it's clear that the day of plain English has not officially arrived.

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