New law bans use of confusing words and sentences in government documents. Read the results

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the “United States Plain Writing Act of 2010.” Thirteen years after President Clinton issued his own “Plain Writing in Government” memorandum, the revised set of guidelines states that by July of this year all government agencies must simplify the often perplexing bureaucratic jargon used in documents produced for the American public. Gone are the grammatically longwinded sentences, replaced with simpler English words, grammar and syntax.

The Executive Order for plain language states that all documents shall be accessible, consistent and above all else, easy to understand. In fact, the word ‘shall’ is a perfect example. Deemed as too stuffy and somewhat ancient, ‘shall’ will be replaced with the more affable ‘should.’ Some other terms that are off limits include “precluded,” “heretofore,” “in accordance with,” and the austerely rigid, “herein.”

Language reform is nothing new. In Mark Twain’s “A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling,” the author calls for the eradication of the “useless” letter C by replacing it with either K or S. In addition, Twain petitions for the abolishment of the letter X from the English alphabet.

Why does the letter C represent so many sounds? Find out here. And what was the original name for the letter X? Here’s the answer.)

OK, we confess, Twain’s proposal was a joke, but the implications of this new law are very real. Consider the following sentence from the Department of Justice’s Claims for Damages due to International Terrorism.

Before: “The amount of expenses reimbursed to a claimant under this subpart shall be reduced by any amount that the claimant receives from a collateral source in connection with the same act of international terrorism. In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this subpart for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this subpart.”

After: “If you get a payment from a collateral source, we will reduce our payment by the amount you get. If you get payments from us and from a collateral source for the same expenses, you must pay us back the amount we paid you.”

What do you think? Does this go far enough? Would you like to see other types of language reform to make language easier to use and understand? What do you suggest?