A modest (regulatory) proposal

The Monitor's language columnist argues that it shouldn't be all in the fine print.

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When all else fails, the saying goes, read the directions. Ah, but what if the directions were meant not to be read?

The modern world is full of what might be called anticommunication: pieces of verbiage, spoken or written, that seem not to be meant to convey real meaning. Take the voice-over disclaimers in television ads, for instance: "Some restrictions may apply." There's all the text that comes when you book airline tickets online (how else nowadays?) and get the pages and pages about the Warsaw Convention on baggage. And there are the pages and pages of fine print in financial reports of all kinds.

It particularly gets me that so much of this is printed in capital letters. The use of upper- and lowercase letters gives words more distinctive shapes, which are easier to read.

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Another place where all-caps styles are used is those end-user licensing agreements (EULAs) that you have to accept before you download programs from the Internet. The sellers have you over a barrel. You don't really have an option of renegotiating. You have to assume that the program you're interested in must be OK, or there wouldn't be so many people recommending it to you, or it wouldn't have become the industry standard.

EULA is at least euphonious. Eula sounds as unlikely to make trouble as Aunt Tillie or Aunt Sallie. But then again, we have had trouble lately with Sallie, to say nothing of Fannie and Freddie, and now Congress has thrown a TARP ("troubled asset relief program") over the whole mess.

Here's my modest proposal, still in rough form: At this moment, when the financial markets look likely to be facing a new wave of regulation, let's take the opportunity to push for use of plain language in all those places where obfuscation and legalese are currently found.

What if the documentation attached to regulated financial products had to meet some kind of readability standards, in terms of both text and presentation? What if such documents were written the way you would write to explain something important to someone you cared about?

There are precedents for the kind of changes I'm calling for. One is in the area of newspaper design. In the early days of newspapers, just getting the words onto the page was deemed achievement enough. I remember seeing, at New Salem Village in Illinois a number of years ago, one of the newspapers that young Abraham Lincoln used to read cover to cover before he delivered them in his role as postmaster.

It was a sort of proto-Wall Street Journal, chockablock with type, with no pictures, "divvies," "pull-quotes," or other tools that contemporary designers use to "break up the gray." In a world less saturated with words and information, these devices were unnecessary. Today, news organizations realize they can't count on their readers being as dedicated as young Lincoln, and so they do use these tools to communicate meaning to readers who skim and scan as well as those who read in depth.

And in the world of the Web, ease of reading was recognized as an issue early on. "Usability" is a whole industry.

I don't want to be overoptimistic about what regulation can do to control human greed and gullibility. But I do suggest this, dear reader: Start to pay attention to the messages around you. Ask yourself: Are these words intended to convey meaning – or to conceal it?

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