Oyez, oyez, oyez, plain speak!

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A trip to the marketplace of ideas is not unlike any other shopping trip. One tends to come back with things not on the original list.

So it was the other day. Looking to nail down when English officially took over from French as the language of Parliament (1362, it turns out), I also discovered the plain-language movement. This is a quiet but broad campaign to simplify the language of legislation, government, and the courts. What a good idea.

There is a connection between the shift from French to English and the effort to simplify official writing.

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The Norman conquest of England in 1066 meant that French was imposed as the language of government and law. The Normans are one reason modern English has such an abundance of synonyms. If the Normans made life linguistically richer, though, they didn't make it simpler.

As David Elliott, a Canadian lawyer and advocate of plain language, explains, "[T]he scribes of the day had a problem. They wanted to be sure that [legal] transactions were effective – but how could they achieve that with a language in transition and a population that clung to English. The answer was simple – use two or three words instead of one. Use the Norman word, the English word, and if necessary the Latin as well."

Thus the familiar paired legal phrases: "free and clear" or "last will and testament." And it didn't help that legal scriveners were paid by the word.

The plain-language movement has a manifestation within the US government: the Plain English Action and Information Network, a group of federal employees trying to improve communications within government and especially with citizens. In Britain, there's the Plain English Campaign. It posts a regular "Gobbledygook of the week" feature and gives "Golden Bull" awards for truly outstanding examples of blather.

Legions of plain-language wordsmiths are available to help government agencies, lawyers, and others in the battle against blather. For amateurs in the privacy of their own homes, other help may be just a few keystrokes away.

I've been working with Microsoft Word's readability statistics over the past few months. It's had me tearing my hair out at times, but I've learned from it. Anyone working with Word should at least know it's there.

The stats include "grade level" and an "ease of reading" feature – the higher the percentile reading, the better. Writing destined for a broader public should have a score pushing 60.

Concern about plain language is not new. OMB Watch, a publication which tracks government transparency, reported last year on a congressional hearing that highlighted confusion caused by regulatory legalese.

Use of plain language can "help level the playing field" and open public process to citizens and small businesses, and not just large organizations and expensive consultants, OMB Watch suggested.

Thomas Jefferson would agree. He is said to have complained about the traditional language of British statutes, ... which from their verbosity, their endless tautologies, their involutions of case within case, and parenthesis within parenthesis, and their multiplied efforts at certainty by saids and aforesaids, by ors and by ands, to make them more plain, do really render them more perplexed and incomprehensible, not only to common readers, but to lawyers themselves.

One can only hope that Jefferson was being a bit ironic when he wrote this. I've just tweaked this it to make it a complete sentence and run it through Microsoft's readability program. For "ease of reading" it ranked down below the seventh percentile.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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