Big Words, part one

There’s a move afoot in the federal government to have federal rulemaking documents written in plain English — instead of the usual mix of acronyms, technical jargon and legalistic mumbo-jumbo. Some agencies have mandated “plain language” training for their staffs, and now there’s even a federal website,, which recommends, among other things, that we use contractions in formal writing — “to help people relate to your document.”

Leave it to the federal government to take a good idea and screw it up.

The good idea is this: as much as possible, government documents should be written to the general public. The prime directive of all communication is “know your audience”: know who you’re talking to and use their language. Emphatically not a matter of “dumbing it down,” this just means that when you’re explaining something to a colleague you can use one vocabulary and style; when you’re explaining it to someone outside your discipline, you have to use another.

Full disclosure: I work for a federal agency, and I see what my colleagues are up against when trying to write documents that are clear and easy to read. They struggle against a bureaucracy where the force of business-as-usual conventions keeps good writing at bay. The federal plain language website is trying to help.

But this “relate” business is bologna. What about simply helping people read our documents so they can respond appropriately? Readers relate to different kinds of writing differently. The way we relate to a newspaper column by Jim Hale (with enthusiasm; with expectation; with glee) is generally not the way we relate to a subpoena. (Okay, some people relate to them the same, but let’s not go there.)

Read Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame of Paris,” and then see if you “relate” the same way to an environmental impact statement.

Using contractions in formal writing is a good example of what’s at stake here. Contractions are the mark of informal writing and might have readers “relating” the wrong way. There’s nothing informal about government writing. More often than not it has legal consequences, and an informal style runs the risk of misleading readers to think the document is less than formal, less than legal, less than compulsory.

The struggle to write well is often the pursuit of just the right word that will help readers respond appropriately to the writing at hand. This is the “why” of our three questions: what am I trying to say, who am I talking to, and why? In this pursuit, a word can be “right” for many different reasons besides just the denotations found in the dictionary.

Years ago, before coming to Alaska, I had to write a legal notice explaining that certain users of a natural resource were willfully misinterpreting regulations to gain more privileges than granted under the law. Explaining how these parties misconstrued the regulations, I wrote: “That interpretation is wrong.”

Plain English all right, but when the lawyers reviewed my draft, they revised my plain English to read: “That interpretation would be erroneous.” Erroneous: not a word much in use in everyday conversation, in plain English. And that’s the point.

A much younger man then and more of a hothead, I barked back that we should be direct and blunt and plain-spoken: say it’s “wrong.” But the lawyers were right. “Wrong” was the wrong word — not because it meant something different than “erroneous,” but because we respond to big words differently than to little words.

The choice of “erroneous” over “wrong” may seem like a merely stylistic choice, and indeed it is, but style carries a significant message. “Erroneous” was the right word in this instance, because more formal, more objective, more dispassionate. It thus helped keep the discussion on a higher, more cordial and disinterested level. (I thank my friend Ben Muse for helping me to see this.) Public discourse, especially when coming from the government, should be a model of cordial relations, dispassionate even when — or especially when — we’re passionate about the subject.

I seem to have taken up this column with inveighing against, but there’s more to say about big words. Next time: “Big Words, Part Two.”

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