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# Federal Plain Language Guidelines 2011

Dispensa al corso di Lingua inglese c.a. della Prof.ssa Manuela Cipri. Trattasi di una guida della Plain Language Action and Information Network, redatta da un gruppo di impiegati federali per implementare e migliorare la forma della comunicazione politico-istituzionale.

Esame di Lingua Inglese c.a. docente Prof. M. Cipri

Anteprima

### ESTRATTO DOCUMENTO

§ 254.11 Indian Rights. §254.11 How do the procedures in this part affect

Indian rights?

§ 254.12 Applications. § 254.12 How do I apply for a grant under this

part?

§ 254.13 Multi-tribal grants. § 254.13. When must I submit my application?

§ 254.14 Administrative § 254.14 Can a multi-tribal organization submit a

requirements. single grant request?

§ 254.15 Appeals § 254.15 What special information do I need for an

application by a multi-tribal organization?

§ 254.16 Must each tribe in a multi-tribal

organization submit certification forms

and budgets?

§ 254.17 If I receive a grant under this part, what

requirements must I follow?

§ 254.18 What reports must I submit after receiving

a grant?

§ 254.19 How can I appeal administrative actions

under this part?

than the short topic headings in the left column. Additionally, breaking the material

into more sections allows us to capture the entire content of each section in its heading.

break up the material into logical, understandable pieces. 12

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

It’s often useful to start writing your document by developing the headings, structuring

them to your audience’s concerns. This approach can also reveal major groupings of

information that you might want to identify with centered headings.

first step in organizing the organization

document Who may hold leases and permits?

Can foreign citizens hold permits or leases?

Qualifications of permittees and

lessees How do I file evidence of my qualifications?

Can I amend my qualifications statement?

Must I file a bond with my permit or lease?

Where do I file my bond?

What types of bonds are acceptable?

Bonding requirements How does BLM establish bond amounts?

When does BLM terminate my liability

under a bond?

Headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the material in the section itself.

shorter than the content that follows them.

Do I have to file a newspaper Must I publish a public notice?

notice of my activities before I You must publish a notice of your operations

begin operations? in a local newspaper before you begin.

Yes. 13

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 14-

16.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 70 (C).

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC,

pp. 10-12, 27.

Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, MMR-2.

www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/. 14

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

d. Write short sections

Short sections break up material so it appears easier to comprehend. Long, dense

sections with no white space are visually unappealing, and give the impression your

document is difficult to understand. Short sections appear easier to comprehend, and

Short sections also give you more opportunity to insert informative headings in your

to your document. Long sections are impossible to summarize meaningfully in a

about the entire contents of the section.

Long, dense paragraph Shorter paragraphs, easier to follow

§ 2653.30 Native group § 2653.31 What are the selection criteria for

selections. Native group selections and what lands are

available?

(a) Selections must not exceed

the amount recommended by You may select only the amount

the regional corporation or 320 recommended by the regional corporation or

acres for each Native member of 320 acres for each Native member of a group,

a group, or 7,680 acres for each or 7,680 acres for each Native group,

Native group, whichever is less. whichever is less. You must identify any

Native groups must identify any acreage over 7,680 as alternate selections and

acreage over that as alternate rank their selection.

selections and rank their § 2653.32 What are the restrictions in

selections. Beyond the conveyances to Native groups?

reservations in sections 2650.32

and 2650.46 of this Part, Beyond the reservations described in this part

conveyances of lands in a conveyances of lands in a National Wildlife

National Wildlife Refuge are Refuge are subject to section 22(g) of ANSCA

subject to the provisions of as though they were conveyances to a village.

section 22(g) of ANCSA and

section 2651.41 of this chapter as § 2653.33 Do Native group selections have to

though they were conveyances share a border?

to a village corporation. Yes, selections must share a border. The total

(b) Selections must be 15

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Long, dense paragraph Shorter paragraphs, easier to follow

contiguous and the total area area you select must be compact except where

selected must be compact except separated by lands that are unavailable for

where separated by lands that selection. We will not consider your selection

are unavailable for selection. if:

BLM will not consider the (a) It excludes lands available for selection

selection compact if it excludes within its exterior boundaries; or

lands available for selection

within its exterior boundaries; or (b) An isolated tract of public land of less than

an isolated tract of public land of 640 acres remains after selection.

less than 640 acres remains after

selection. The lands selected § 2653.34 How small a parcel can I select?

must be in quarter sections

where they are available unless Select lands in quarter sections where they are

exhaustion of the group’s available unless there is not enough left in

entitlement does not allow the your group’s entitlement to allow this. Your

selection of a quarter section. election must include all available lands in

The selection must include all areas that are smaller than quarter sections.

available lands in less than Conform your selection as much as possible

quarter sections. Lands selected to the United States land survey system.

must conform as nearly as

practicable to the United States

lands survey system.

Sources

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, pp. 11,

165-174.

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC,

pp. 9-10. 16

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

With a relatively small amount of effort and in a relatively short amount of time, you

can significantly improve traditionally-written material. 17

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

a. Words

Words matter. They are the most basic building blocks of written and spoken

communication. Choose your words carefully – be precise and concise. 18

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

1. Verbs

Verbs tell your audience what to do. Make sure they know who does what. 19

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

i. Use active voice

Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what. It eliminates ambiguity about

responsibilities. Not “It must be done., but “You must do it.” Passive voice obscures

who is responsible for what and is one of the biggest problems with government

documents. Don’t confuse passive voice with past tense.

In an active sentence, the person or agency that’s acting is the subject of the sentence. In

a passive sentence, the person or item that is acted upon is the subject of the sentence.

Passive sentences often do not identify who is performing the action.

Passive voice Active voice

The lake was polluted by the The company polluted the lake.

company.

New regulations were proposed. We proposed new regulations.

The following information must You must include the following

be included in the application for information in your application.

it to be considered complete.

Bonds will be withheld in cases of We will withhold your bond if you don’t

non-compliance with all permits comply with all permit terms and

and conditions. conditions.

Regulations have been proposed The Department of Veterans Affairs

by the Department of Veterans proposed new regulations.

Affairs.

The permit must be approved by Our State office must approve your

the agency’s State office. permit.

More than any other writing technique, using active voice and specifying who is

performing an action will change the character of your writing. 20

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

How do you identify passive sentences?

Passive sentences have two basic features, although both may not appear in every

passive sentence.

A form of the verb “to be” (for example: are, was, were, could be) and

A past participle (generally with “ed” on the end).

Use passive voice when the law is the actor

In a very few instances, passive voice may be appropriate. For example, when one

action follows another as a matter of law, and there is no actor (besides the law itself)

for the second action, a passive sentence may be the best method of expression. You

might also use passive when it doesn’t matter who is doing an action.

For example:

If you do not pay the royalty on your mineral production, your

lease will be terminated<

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 173-175.

Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd edition, 1995, Oxford University Press,

Oxford and New York, pp. 643-644.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

24-26.

Garner, Bryan A., Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2003. Oxford University Press, Oxford and

New York, pp. 892-893.

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC,

pp. 73-75.

Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, p. MMR-5.

www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/ddh.pdf.

Redish, Janice C., How to Write Regulations and Other Legal Documents in Clear English, 1991,

American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, p. 26.

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, pp. 19 –20.

21

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

ii. Use the simplest form of a verb

The simplest and strongest form of a verb is present tense. A document written in the

present tense is more immediate and less complicated. Using the present tense makes

your document more direct and forceful. The more you use conditional or future tense,

the harder your audience has to work to understand your meaning. Writing entirely in

the present tense saves your audience work and helps make your point clearly.

Don’t say Say

These sections describe types of These sections tell you how to meet the

information that would satisfy the requirements of Circular A-110 for this

application requirements of Circular grant program.

A-110 as it would apply to this grant

program.

Even if you are covering an event that occurred in the past, you can clarify the material

for your user by writing as much as possible in the present tense.

Don’t say Say

Applicants who were Federal employees at You may not be covered under this

the time that the injury was sustained should part if:

have filed a compensation request at that a. You were a Federal employee at

time. Failure to do so could have an effect on the time of the injury; and

the degree to which the applicant can be b. You did not file a claim at that

covered under this part. time.

Occasionally, of course, you may need to use other tenses. For example, National

Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents frequently refer to what may happen in

the future if certain events occur. But use tenses other than the present only when

necessary for accuracy. 22

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

iii. Avoid hidden verbs

Use the strongest, most direct form of the verb possible.

Verbs are the fuel of writing. Verbs give your sentences power and direction. They

enliven your writing and make it more interesting. Too often, we hide verbs by turning

them into nouns, making them less effective and using more words than we need.

Hidden verbs are a particular problem in government writing.

What are hidden verbs?

A hidden verb is a verb converted into a noun. It often needs an extra verb to make

sense. So we write, “Please make an application for a personal loan” rather than “Please

apply for a personal loan.”

Hidden verbs come in two forms. Some have endings such as -ment, -tion, -sion, and -

ance or link with verbs such as achieve, effect, give, have, make, reach, and take. Often, you

will find a hidden verb between the words “the” and “of.”

Hidden Verb Uncovered

To trace the missing payment, we To trace the missing payment, we need to

need to carry out a review of the review the Agency’s accounts so we

Agency’s accounts so we can gain understand the reason the error occurred.

an understanding of the reason the

error occurred.

If you cannot make the payment of If you cannot pay the $100 fee, you must the$100 fee, you must make an apply in writing before you file your tax

application in writing before you return.

This means we must undertake the This means we must calculate new figures

calculation of new figures for the for the congressional hearing.

congressional hearing.

The production of accurate statistics Producing accurate statistics is important to

is important for the committee in the committee in assessing our policy on

the assessment of our homelessness homelessness.

policy. 23

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 176-178.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 38

(14.)

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC., p. 71

(D.4).

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC., p. 21.

Wright, Nick, Hidden Verbs, at

www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wordsuggestions/hiddenverbs.cfm. 24

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

iv. Use “must” to indicate requirements

The word “must” is the clearest way to convey to your audience that they have to do

something. “Shall” is one of those officious and obsolete words that has encumbered

legal style writing for many years. The message that “shall” sends to the audience is,

“this is deadly material.” “Shall” is also obsolete. When was the last time you heard it

used in everyday speech?

Besides being outdated, “shall” is imprecise. It can indicate either an obligation or a

prediction. Dropping “shall” is a major step in making your document more user-

friendly. Don’t be intimidated by the argument that using “must” will lead to a lawsuit.

Many agencies already use the word “must” to convey obligations. The US Courts are

eliminating “shall” in favor of “must” in their Rules of Procedure. One example of these

rules is cited below.

“must” for an obligation,

“must not” for a prohibition,

“may” for a discretionary action, and

“should” for a recommendation.

The following example demonstrates how much clearer language can be if you follow

these suggestions.

Don’t say Say

Section 5511.1 Free Use of Timber on Section 5511.1 Free Use of Timber on Oil

Oil and Gas Leases and Gas Leases

a. Any oil or gas lessee who wishes a. You must file an application to use

to use timber for fuel in drilling the timber on your oil or gas lease

operations shall file an for fuel. File the application with

application therefore with the our office where you got your lease.

officer who issued the lease. b. We will notify you by registered

b. The applicant shall be notified by mail if we reject your application.

registered mail in all cases where You must file an appeal of that

the permit applied for is not decision within 30 days.

granted, and shall be given 30 c. You must notify any settler, by

days within which to appeal such registered mail, that you have 25

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Don’t say Say

decision. applied to use timber from your

c. Where the land is occupied by a lease. Include in your notice the

settler, the applicant shall serve amount and the kind of timber you

notice on the settler by registered intend to use as fuel.

mail showing the amount and

kind of timber he has applied for.

Many legal scholars have written about the problem of “shall.” Read a brief summary of

several arguments at: www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wordsuggestions/shallmust.cfm.

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 183-184.

Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2 edition, 1995, Oxford University Press,

nd

Oxford and New York, pp. 939-942.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

105-106.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, pp. 159-

160.

US Courts, Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, 2009, US Government Printing Office, Washington,

DC. www.uscourt.gov/uscourts/rulesandpolicies/rules/ap2009.pdf.

Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5 edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham,

th

NC, p. 64. 26

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

v. Use contractions when appropriate

While many legal authorities say that contractions don’t belong in legal writing, Bryan

Garner, a leading authority on legal writing, advocates their use as a way to make legal

writing, including opinions and rules, less stuffy and more natural. Contractions make

your writing more accessible to the user. Research shows that that they also enhance

“Write as you talk” is a common rule of writing readably, and the best way to do that is

to use contractions. People are accustomed to hearing contractions in spoken English,

and using them in your writing helps people relate to your document.

Use contractions with discretion. Just as you shouldn’t bullet everything on a page, you

shouldn’t make a contraction out of every possible word. Don’t use them wherever

possible, but wherever they sound natural.

Don’t Say Say

No pilot in command of a civil aircraft If you are a pilot in command of a civil

may allow any object to be dropped aircraft, don’t allow any object that

from that aircraft in flight that creates a creates a hazard to persons or property to

hazard to persons or property. be dropped from that aircraft during

flight.

Sources

DaNielsen , Wayne A. and Dominic L. Larosa, A New Readability Formula Based on the Stylistic

Age of Novels, 33 Journal of Reading (1989), pp. 194, 196.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

49-50.

Garner, Bryan A., The Elements of Legal Style, 2002, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford and New York, pp.

81-82. 27

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

2. Nouns and pronouns

complicate things by using words they won’t understand or abbreviations that confuse

them. 28

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

i. Don’t turn verbs into nouns

The bulk of government and technical writing uses too many noun strings – groups of

nouns “sandwiched” together. Readability suffers when three words that are ordinarily

separate nouns follow in succession. Once you get past three, the string becomes

unbearable. Technically, clustering nouns turns all but the last noun into adjectives.

However, many users will think they’ve found the noun when they’re still reading

Bring these constructions under control by eliminating descriptive words that aren’t

essential. If you can’t do that, open up the construction by using more prepositions and

articles to clarify the relationships among the words.

Avoid nouns strings like these Instead, say

Underground mine worker safety Developing procedures to protect the safety

protection procedures of workers in underground mines

development

Draft laboratory animal rights Draft regulations to protect the rights of

protection regulations laboratory animals

National Highway Traffic Safety The National Highway Traffic Safety

belt interlock rule automotive seat belts

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 192-193.

Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2 edition, 1995, Oxford University Press,

nd

Oxford and New York, pp. 601-602.

Garner, Bryan A., Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2003, Oxford University Press, Oxford and

New York, p. 557.

Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5 edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham,

th

NC, p. 71.

Zinsser, William, On Writing Well, 6 edition, 2001, HarperCollins, New York, pp. 77-78.

th 29

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

ii. Use pronouns to speak directly to readers

Pronouns help the audience picture themselves in the text and relate better to your

documents. More than any other single technique, using “you” pulls users into your

document and makes it relevant to them. When you use “you” to address users, they

are more likely to understand what their responsibility is. Using “we” to refer to your

agency makes your agency more approachable. It also makes your sentences shorter

Don’t say Say

Copies of tax returns must be You must provide copies of your tax returns.

provided.

Writing for an individual forces you to analyze carefully what you want the reader to

do. By writing to an individual, you will find it easier to:

Put information in a logical order

Answer questions and provide the information that your user wants to know

Assign responsibilities and requirements clearly

Be sure to define “you” clearly.

Don’t say Say

Facilities in regional and district offices are If you are a private citizen, you

available to the public during normal business can get copies of our records at

hours for requesting copies of agency records. any regional or district office <

Define “you” by any of the following methods:

State in the beginning of the document who the user is — ”This regulation tells

you, the loan applicant, how to secure a loan.”

Define “you” in the Definitions section — ”You” means a loan applicant.

Where you address different users in different parts of the document, define

“you” in each context — “How do different types of borrowers apply for a

30

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

loan? If you are a small business, you must submit < If you are an individual,

you must submit <”

It’s especially important to define “you” when writing to multiple audiences.

Don’t say Say

Lessees and operators are Lessees and operators are responsible for

responsible for restoring the restoring the site. If you are the lessee, you must

site. You must ensure that < monitor the operator to ensure that. If you are

the operator, you must conduct all operations in

a way <

If you use a question-and-answer format, you should assume that the user is the one

asking the questions. Use “I” in the questions to refer to the user. Use “we” in the

Don’t say Say

Submission of applications. How do I apply?

By using “we” to respond to questions, you state clearly what your agency requires and

what your agency’s responsibilities are. You also avoid the passive voice and use fewer

words. You can define “we” in the definitions sections of your document if that will

help the user. Don’t say Say

Loan applications will be reviewed to We review your loan application to

ensure that procedures have been ensure that you followed our

followed. procedures.

The Office of Consumer Affairs will We’ll process your application within 30

process your application within 30 days days of receiving it.

after receipt. 31

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Make sure you use pronouns that clearly refer to a specific noun. If a pronoun could

refer to more than one person or object in a sentence, repeat the name of the person or

object or rewrite the sentence.

Don’t say Say

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd edition, 1995, Oxford University Press,

Oxford and New York, p. 643.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 50.

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC,

pp. 33-38.

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 22.

Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5 edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham,

th

NC. 32

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

iii. Minimize abbreviations

One legal scholar calls abbreviations a “menace to prose” (Kimble, 2006). Abbreviations

were once intended to serve the audience by shortening long phrases. However,

abbreviations have proliferated so much in current government writing that they

constantly require the reader to look back to earlier pages, or to consult an appendix, to

puzzle out what’s being said.

Use “nicknames”

The best solution is to find a simplified name for the entity you want to abbreviate. This

gives readers meaningful content that helps them remember what you’re talking about.

It may be a bit longer, but the gain in clarity and ease of reading is worth it. In most

cases, you don’t need to “define” this nickname the first time you use it, unless you are

using lots of different nicknames. Especially when you are using a nickname for the

major topic of your document, don’t insult your users and waste their time. For

example, in a paper about Resource Advisory Councils, don’t tell them that when you

say “Council” you mean “Resource Advisory Council.”

Engineering Safety Advisory Committee ESAC the committee

Small-quantity handlers of universal SQHUW waste handlers

wastes

Fire and Police Employee Relations Act FPERA the Act

If everyone knows an abbreviation, use it without

explanation

There’s a short list of abbreviations that have entered common usage. When you use

them, don’t define them, you’re just taking up space and annoying your user. But make

sure the abbreviation you’re using is on the list. Examples include IBM, ATM, BMW,

PhD, CIA.

A closely related guideline is, “don’t define something that’s obvious to the user.” Most

federal agencies, when writing a letter responding to an inquiry, insist on defining the

agency name, as in, “Thank you for writing to the Federal Aviation Administration

33

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

wrote to the agency, and now the agency is writing back. The user is not going to be

If you must abbreviate

Of course, there are some situations in which you can’t avoid an abbreviation. Always

define an abbreviation the first time you use it, for example, “The American Journal of

Plain Language Studies” (AJPLA). And limit the number of abbreviations you use in

one document to no more than three, and preferably two. Spell out everything else. If

you’ve used abbreviations for the two or three most common items, it’s unlikely that

the other items occur so frequently you can’t spell them out every time.

When you are considering whether to use an abbreviation, or how many you can get

away with in a document, remember that they should make it easier for your users. If

they make it harder, you have failed to write for your audience.

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2 edition, 1995, Oxford University Press,

nd

Oxford and New York, pp. 447-448.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

46-48.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 155.

34

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

3. Other word issues

Be concise – leave out unnecessary words. Don’t use jargon or technical terms when

everyday words have the same meaning. Use words and terms consistently throughout

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

i. Use short, simple words

Vocabulary choice is an important part of communicating clearly. While there is no

problem with being expressive, most federal writing has no place for literary flair.

People do not curl up in front of the fire with a nice federal regulation to have a relaxing

Government writing is often stodgy, full of long, dry legalisms and other jargon.

Federal government writing is no exception. H.W. Fowler summed up these

recommendations for making word choices in his influential book, The King’s English,

first published in 1906. He encouraged writers to be more simple and direct in their

style (quoted in Kimble, 2006).

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.

Prefer the concrete word to the abstraction.

Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.

Prefer the short word to the long.

Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance word.

Kathy McGinty (www.plainlanguage.gov) offers tongue-in-cheek instructions for

bulking up your simple, direct sentences.

There is no escaping the fact that it is considered very important to note that a

number of various available applicable studies ipso facto have generally

identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could

usually keep juvenile adolescents off thoroughfares during the night hours,

including but not limited to the time prior to midnight on weeknights and/or

2 a.m. on weekends.

And the original, using stronger, simpler words:

More night jobs would keep youths off the streets. 36

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

In making your word choices, pick the familiar or frequently used word over the

unusual or obscure. There are many lists of complex words and suggested substitutes,

for example www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wordsuggestions/simplewords.cfm. See

also the lists in Kimble (2006).

Sources

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, pp. 11,

165-174.

McGinty, Kathy, Nine Easy Steps to Longer Sentences,

www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/humor/9easysteps.cfm. 37

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

ii. Omit unnecessary words

Wordy, dense construction is one of the biggest problems in government writing.

Nothing is more confusing to the user than long, complex sentences containing multiple

phrases and clauses. Unnecessary words come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s difficult

to put them into distinct categories. To address the problem, writers must become more

critical of their own writing. They must consider whether they need every word.

Unnecessary words waste your audience’s time on the web as well. Remember, great

web content is like a conversation. Omit information that the audience doesn’t need to

know. This can be difficult for a subject matter expert, so it is important to have

someone look at the information from the audience’s perspective. (See Write web

One place to start working on this problem in your own writing is to watch out for “of,”

“to,” “on,” and other prepositions. They often mark phases you can reduce to one or

two words. Don’t say Say

a number of several, a few, many

a sufficient number of enough

at this point in time now

is able to can

on a monthly basis monthly

on the ground that because

an amount of X X

be responsible for must

in order to to

Often, you can omit redundant words.

Don’t say Say

The X Department and the Y The X and Y Departments worked on

Department worked together on a a project to improve <

joint project to improve <

In this statement, you don’t need “joint.” You don’t even need “together.” Saying that X

and Y worked on a project says it all. “Joint” and “together” are both redundant. 38

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Similarly, we often use excess modifiers such as absolutely, actually, completely, really,

quite, totally, and very. But if you take a close look, you’ll find that they often aren’t

necessary, and may even be nonsensical.

Don’t say Say

Their claim was totally unrealistic. Their claim was absurd.

It is particularly difficult to reconcile It is difficult to reconcile the differing

the somewhat differing views views expressed by the management

expressed by the management team. team.

Total disclosure of all facts is very Disclosing all facts is important to

important to make sure we draw up a creating an accurate picture of the

total and completely accurate picture Agency’s financial position.

of the Agency’s financial position.

Avoid doublets and triplets. English writers love to repeat the same concept by using

different words that say the same thing.

Don’t say Say

due and payable due

cease and desist stop

knowledge and information (either one)

begin and commence start

Other ways to omit unnecessary words include eliminating hidden verbs, using

pronouns, and using active voice. See the guidance on those three topics (Avoid hidden

verbs, Use pronouns to speak directly to readers, and Use active voice) for more

information.

Here’s an example that uses several of the techniques discussed above to cut a 54 word

sentence down to 22 words, with no loss of meaning.

Don’t say Say

If the State Secretary finds that an If the State Secretary finds that you

individual has received a payment to received a payment that you weren’t

which the individual was not entitled, entitled to, you must pay the entire

whether or not the payment was due to sum back.

the individual’s fault or

misrepresentation, the individual shall 39

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Don’t say Say

be liable to repay to State the total sum

of the payment to which the individual

was not entitled.

Omitting excess words can cut documents significantly. Be diligent in challenging every

word you write, and eventually you will learn to write not only clearly, but concisely.

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

43, 40, 34.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, Carolina Academic Press, 2006, Durham, NC, pp. 93,

170.

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 25.

40

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

iii. Dealing with definitions

We have ONE rule for dealing with definitions: use them rarely.

Definitions often cause more problems than they solve. Uniformly, writing experts

advise keeping definitions to a minimum (Dickerson 1986, Garner 2001, Kimble 2006). If

you can’t avoid them, use as few as possible. It’s better to take the time to rewrite to

avoid needing to define a term. If you must use definitions, follow the guidelines below:

Give common words their common meanings and don’t

define them.

Never define a word to mean something other than its commonly accepted meaning.

Reed Dickerson, in his landmark book, Fundamentals of Legal Drafting (1986), has this

It is important for the legal draftsman not to define a word in a sense

significantly different from the way it is normally understood by the persons

to whom it is primarily addressed. This is a fundamental principle of

communication, and it is one of the shames of the legal profession that

draftsmen so flagrantly violate it. Indeed, the principle is one of the most

important in the whole field of legal drafting.

Mr. Dickerson’s advice applies to any government communication, not just to legal

drafters.

Morris Cohen, in Reason and Law (1950), explains, “Whenever we define a word < in a

manner that departs from current customary usage, we sooner or later unwittingly fall

back on the common use and thus confuse the meanings of our terms.”

Furthermore, readers are likely to forget that you’d assigned some common word a new

meaning, and when they come upon the word later in your document they assign the

common meaning, rather than your specialized one. Here are some unnecessary

definitions. 41

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Commonly understood words you probably didn’t need to define

Bicycle means every device propelled solely by human power upon which a person

or persons may ride on land, having one, two, or more wheels, except a manual

wheelchair.

Degrade means to lessen or diminish in quantity, quality, or value.

Age means how old a person is, or the number of elapsed years from the date of a

person’s birth.

And here are some examples of definitions that conflict with customary usage – you

should avoid these at all costs.

Commonly understood words with How uncommon meanings might

Pages means paper copies of standard Ten pages into the document, how do you

office size or the dollar value equivalent think the average user would respond if

in other media asked to define “page”?

Coal deposits mean all Federally owned So if coal is held in trust for a Native

coal deposits, except those held in trust American tribe, it isn’t coal?

for a Native American tribe.

livestock which has died otherwise than

by slaughter.

When possible, define a word where you use it

Avoid long sections of definitions at the beginning or end of your document. Go back to

Rule One. Rewrite to try to eliminate the need for most definitions.

If you must have a definition section, put it at the

beginning or the end

Place definitions at the end, in spite of tradition. In placing definitions at the end, you

allow your user to go right to the text, rather than having to go through less important

material. In definition sections, don’t number the definitions, but list them

alphabetically. This makes it easier for users to find a definition, and usually makes it

easier for you to change your definition section later. 42

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Never include regulatory or other substantive material

in definitions

Not only is this common sense — your user doesn’t expect substantive material in the

definitions section — but for regulations it’s a requirement of the Office of the Federal

Register.

Consider this “definition” in Title 43 Part 3480 — Coal Exploration and Mining

Operations:

Maximum economic recovery (MER) means that, based on standard industry

operating practices, all profitable portions of a leased Federal coal deposit

must be mined. At the times of MER determinations, consideration will be

given to: existing proven technology; commercially available and

economically feasible equipment; coal quality, quantity, and marketability;

safety, exploration, operating, processing, and transportation costs; and

compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The requirement of MER

does not restrict the authority of the authorized officer to ensure the

conservation of the recoverable coal reserves and other resources and to

prevent the wasting of coal.

Hiding in this long passage is the definition, “Maximum economic recovery (MER)

means the mining of all profitable portions of a leased Federal coal deposit, based on

standard industry operating practices.” All the rest of the material belongs in the

substantive parts of the regulation.

Don’t define words you don’t use

Again, this seems obvious. But writers seem to automatically define terms they think

they might use, but don’t. This can be very confusing for the audience, who expects to

read something about the topic but can’t find it in the document.

Sources

Cohen, Morris, Reason and Law, 1950, The Free Press, Glencoe, IL, p.77.

Dickerson, Reed, Fundamentals of Legal Drafting, 1986, 2 edition, Little, Brown and Company,

nd

Boston and Toronto, pp. 137, 144.

Flesch, Rudolf, How to Write in Plain English, A Book for Lawyers and Consumers, 1979, Harper and

Rowe, New York, pp. 58-69, 79.

Garner, Bryan A., A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2 edition, 1995, Oxford University Press,

nd

Oxford and New York, p. 257-258. 43

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

97-99.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, Carolina Academic Press, 2006, Durham, NC.

Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, § 8.15.

www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/ddh.pdf. 44

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

iv. Use the same term consistently for a

specific thought or object

You will confuse your audience if you use different terms for the same concept. For

example, if you use the term “senior citizens” to refer to a group, continue to use this

term throughout your document. Don’t substitute another term, such as “the elderly” or

“the aged.” Using a different term may cause the reader to wonder if you are referring

to the same group.

Don’t feel that you need to use synonyms to make your writing more interesting.

Federal writers are not supposed to be creating great literature. You are communicating

requirements, how to get benefits, how to stay safe and healthy, and other information

to help people in their lives. While using different words may make writing more

interesting, it may decrease clarity. 45

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

v. Avoid legal, foreign, and technical jargon

What do we mean by jargon? Jargon is unnecessarily complicated, technical language

used to impress, rather than to inform, your audience.

When we say not to use jargon, we’re not advocating leaving out necessary technical

terms; we are saying to make sure your other language is as clear as possible. For

example, there may not be another correct way to refer to a brinulator valve control

ring. But that doesn’t prevent you from saying “tighten the brinulator valve control ring

securely” instead of “Apply sufficient torque to the brinulator valve control ring to

ensure that the control ring assembly is securely attached to the terminal such that

loosening cannot occur under normal conditions.” The first is a necessary use of a

technical term. The second is jargon.

Special terms can be useful shorthand within a group and may be the clearest way to

communicate inside the group. However, going beyond necessary technical terms to

write in jargon can cause misunderstanding or alienation, even if your only readers are

specialists. Readers complain about jargon more than any other writing fault, because

writers often fail to realize that terms they know well may be difficult or meaningless to

their audience. Try to substitute everyday language for jargon as often as possible.

Consider the following pairs. The plainer version conveys technical information just as

accurately as and more clearly than the jargon-laden version.

Don’t say Say

riverine avifauna river birds

involuntarily undomiciled homeless

The patient is being given positive-pressure The patient is on a respirator.

ventilatory support.

Most refractory coatings to date exhibit a The exhaust gas eventually damages

lack of reliability when subject to the the coating of most existing

impingement of entrained particulate matter ceramics.

in the propellant stream under extended

firing durations.

When you have no way to express an idea except to use technical language, make sure

you define your terms. However, it’s best to keep definitions to a minimum. Remember

to write to communicate, not to impress. If you do that, you should naturally use less

jargon. For more on definitions, see Dealing with definitions. 46

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Legal language

Legal language in regulations and other documents is a major source of annoying

jargon. Readers can do without archaic jargon such as “hereafter,” “heretofore,” and

“therewith.” Professor Joseph Kimble (2006), a noted scholar on legal writing, warns

that we should avoid those words and formalisms that give legal writing its musty

smell. He includes in his list of examples the following words:

above-mentioned thereafter

aforementioned thereof

foregoing therewith

henceforth whatsoever

hereafter whereat

hereby wherein

herewith whereof

Another term that is losing its popularity in legal circles is “shall.” Obviously, it’s

especially important in regulations to use words of authority clearly, and many top

legal writing experts now recommend avoiding the archaic and ambiguous “shall” in

“must” to convey requirements.

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 188-191.

Garner, Bryan A., Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2003, Oxford University Press, Oxford and

New York, pp. 472-473.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, pp.173-

174. 47

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

vi. Don’t use slashes

Apart from fractions, the slash has almost no good uses. “And/or” is a classic example.

In most cases, writers mean either “or” or “and.” But they don’t want to take the time to

decide which they mean, so they push the job off on the audience. That makes their

writing ambiguous. As an author, you should decide what you mean. In the few cases

— and there do seem to be very few — where you truly mean both, write out “either X,

or Y, or both.”

Often when writers use slashes, a hyphen is more appropriate to join equal or like

terms, as in “faculty-student ratio.”

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.

163.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, pp. 155-

156. 48

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

b. Sentences

Word order does matter, so place your words carefully. Keep it short; it’s not a crime to

use lots of periods. 49

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

1. Write short sentences

Express only one idea in each sentence. Long, complicated sentences often mean that

you aren’t sure about what you want to say. Shorter sentences are also better for

conveying complex information; they break the information up into smaller, easier-to-

process units.

Sentences loaded with dependent clauses and exceptions confuse the audience by

losing the main point in a forest of words. Resist the temptation to put everything in

one sentence; break up your idea into its parts and make each one the subject of its own

sentence. Don’t say Say

Once the candidate’s goals are Once we establish your goals, we identify

established, one or more potential one or more potential employers. We

employers are identified. A preliminary prepare a preliminary proposal to present

proposal for presentation to the to an employer who agrees to negotiate a

employer is developed. The proposal is job that meets both his and your

presented to an employer who agrees to employment needs.

negotiate an individualized job that

meets the employment needs of the

applicant and real business needs of the

employer.

Complexity is the greatest enemy of clear communication. You may need to be

especially inventive to translate complicated provisions into more manageable

language. In the following example, we have made an “if” clause into a separate

sentence. By beginning the first sentence with “suppose” (that is, “if”) and the second

sentence with “in this case” (that is, “then”) we have preserved the relationship

between the two. 50

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Don’t say Say

If you take less than your entitled share of Suppose that one month you pay

production for any month, but you pay royalties on your full share of

royalties on the full volume of your entitled production but take less than your

share in accordance with the provisions of this entitled share. In this case, you

section, you will owe no additional royalty for may balance your account in one

that lease for prior periods when you later take of the following ways without

more than your entitled share to balance your having to pay more royalty. You

account. This also applies when the other may either:

participants pay you money to balance your a. Take more than your entitled

account. share in the future; or

b. Accept payment from other

participants.

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 163-165.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

19-21.

Kimble, Joseph, Guiding Principles for Restyling the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Part 1),

Michigan Bar Journal, September 2005, pp. 56-57.

www.michbar.org/journal/pdf/pdf4article909.pdf.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 96.

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC,

p. 77.

Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, MMR-5.

www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/ddh.pdf.

Redish, Janice C., How to Write Regulations and Other Legal Documents in Clear English, 1991,

American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, pp. 29-32

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 28.

51

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

2. Keep subject, verb, and object close

together

The natural word order of an English sentence is subject-verb-object. This is how you

first learned to write sentences, and it’s still the best. When you put modifiers, phrases,

or clauses between two or all three of these essential parts, you make it harder for the

user to understand you.

Consider this long, convoluted sentence:

If any member of the board retires, the company, at the discretion of the board,

and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board

at least 30 days before executing this option, may buy, and the retiring member

must sell, the member’s interest in the company.

In essence, the sentence says:

The company may buy a retiring member’s interest.

All the rest of the material modifies the basic idea, and should be moved to another

sentence or at least to the end of the sentence.

Many sentences in regulations include “if-then” provisions. Often, “if” defines who is

covered by a provision. Start your sentence with the “if” provision, and then list the

“then” provisions. If the provision is complex, and especially if there are several

different “if” provisions, use a different sentence for every “if,” or consider using an if-

then table.

Consider this complex regulatory provision:

We must receive your completed application form on or before the 15th day of

the second month following the month you are reporting if you do not submit

your application electronically or the 25th day of the second month following

the month you are reporting if you submit your application electronically.

While still complex, the table is a significant improvement: 52

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

If you submit your form … We must receive it by …

the 25th of the second month following the

Electronically month you are reporting

the 15th of the second month following the

Other than electronically month you are reporting

For more information on tables, see Use tables to make complex material easier to

understand.

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

23-24, 102.

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC,

pp. 77-78.

Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, MMR-6.

www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/ddh.pdf

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 32.

53

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

3. Avoid double negatives and exceptions to

exceptions

We’re accustomed to thinking and speaking positively. When we write in the negative,

we place another stumbling block in audience’s way and make it more difficult for them

to understand us. When you’re going to meet a friend at the airport, do you say, “If you

fail to arrive by 5:00, I cannot pick you up,” or do you say, “You have to arrive by 5:00 if

you want me to pick you up”?

When you write a sentence containing two negatives, they cancel each other out. Your

sentence sounds negative, but is actually positive. As Rudolph Flesch (1979) says, these

sentences require “a mental switch from no to yes.”

Don’t say Say

No approval of any noise compatibility You must get the agency’s express

program, or any portion of a program, approval for any noise compatibility

may be implied in the absence of the program or any portion of a program.

agency’s express approval.

Here are some expressions that signal double negatives.

Change the double negative To a positive

no fewer than < at least

has not yet attained is under

may not < until may only < when

is not < unless is < only if

Many ordinary words have a negative meaning, such as unless, fail to, notwithstanding,

except, other than, unlawful (un- words), disallowed (dis- words), terminate, void, insufficient,

and so on. Watch out for them when they appear after not. Find a positive word to

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Don’t say Say

An application for a grant does not An application for a grant remains active if

become void unless the applicant’s the applicant provides the information we

failure to provide requested request within a reasonable time.

information is unreasonable under

the circumstances.

Exceptions to exceptions

An exception that contains an exception is just another form of a double negative. That

makes it even harder for the user to puzzle out. Rewrite the sentence to emphasize the

positive. Don’t say Say

Applicants may be granted a permit to You may be granted a permit to

prospect for geothermal resources on any prospect for geothermal resources

federal lands except lands in the National on any federal lands. This includes

Park System, unless the applicant holds lands in the National Park System

valid existing rights to the geothermal only if you hold valid existing rights

resources on the National Park System to the park lands listed in your

lands listed in the application. application.

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 178-180.

Flesch, Rudolf, How to Write in Plain English, A Book for Lawyers and Consumers, 1979, Harper and

Rowe, New York, p. 95.

Garner, Bryan A., Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Court Rules, 1996, Administrative Office of the

US Courts, Washington, DC, pp. 30-31.

Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5 edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham,

th

NC, pp. 75-76. 55

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

4. Place the main idea before exceptions and

conditions

When you start a sentence with an introductory phrase or clause beginning with

an exception to a rule before you have stated the underlying rule. The audience must

absorb the exception, then the rule, and then usually has to go back to grasp the

main idea and then cover exceptions and conditions.

Don’t say Say

Except as described in paragraph (b), The Division Manager will not begin the

the Division Manager will not begin the statutory 180-day review period for the

statutory 180-day review period for the program until the preliminary review

program until after the preliminary determines that your submission is

is administratively complete. paragraph (b) for an exception.

In the first version, the audience has to decide whether to jump immediately down to

paragraph (b) or continue reading to the end of the sentence. This means the audience is

There is no absolute rule about where to put exceptions and conditions. Put them where

they can be absorbed most easily by readers. In general, the main point of the sentence

should be as close to the beginning as possible.

Usually use the word if for conditions. Use when (not where), if you need if to introduce

another clause or if the condition occurs regularly.

If an exception or condition is just a few words, and seeing it first will avoid misleading

users, put it at the beginning instead of the end. 56

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Don’t say Say

With your grant application you must Unless you have already submitted an up-

submit a resume containing your to-date resume, you must submit a resume

other professional education, your and any other professional education,

work experience in the field of health your work experience in the field of health

care, and the name, and phone care, and the name, address and phone

number of current and previous number of current and previous

employers in the health care field, employers in the health care field.

this information.

If an exception or condition is long and the main clause is short, put the main clause

first and then state the exception or condition.

Don’t say Say

We will schedule a hearing on your

Except when you submitted an identical application, except when you submitted

application for an education grant in

the previous year and you received full an identical application for an

or partial grant for that year’s program, education grant in the previous year and

we will schedule a hearing on your you received full or partial grant for that

year’s program.

application.

If a condition and the main clause are both long, foreshadow the condition and put it at

the end of the sentence. If there are several conditions, lead with “if” or a phrase such as

“in the following circumstances.” 57

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Don’t say Say

If you, or an interested party, We may hold a hearing at the educational

requests that the hearing be held at institution where you plan to instruct

the educational institution where program participants if:

you plan to instruct program a. You, or an interested party, request the

participants, and the hearing room is location;

both handicapped-accessible and b. The hearing room is large enough for

large enough for at least 100 people, at least 100 people and handicapped-

we may, at our discretion, hold the accessible; and

hearing at that location, after c. We can give adequate public notice.

Use a list (like the example above) if your sentence contains multiple conditions or

exceptions. Here’s how the first example, above, could be rewritten.

Don’t say Say

With your grant application you Unless you have already submitted an up-

to-date resume, you must submit a resume

must submit a resume containing

your work experience in the field of any other professional education;

health care, and the name, and Your work experience in the field of

phone number of current and health care; and

previous employers in the health The name, address and phone number

care field, unless you have already of current and previous employers in

submitted this information. the health care field.

Use numbers or letters to designate items in a list if future reference or sequence is

important (for example, in a regulation). Otherwise, use bullets.

Make implied conditions explicit by using if. 58

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Don’t say Say

A party must make advance If your exhibits are unusually bulky, you

arrangements with the hearing must make advance arrangements for

officer for the transportation and transporting them with the hearing.

receipt of exhibits of unusual bulk.

Avoid using an exception, if you can, by stating a rule or category directly rather than

describing that rule or category by stating its exceptions.

Don’t say Say

All persons except those 18 years or Each person under 18 years of age must<

older must<

But use an exception if it avoids a long and cumbersome list or elaborate description.

Don’t say Say

Alabama, Alaska,< and Wyoming Each state except Texas, New Mexico, and

(a list of 47 states) must Arizona must<

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4 th

edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 166-167.

Garner, Bryan A., Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Court Rules, 1996, Administrative Office of the

US Courts, Washington, DC, pp. 5-9.

Office of the Federal Register, Drafting Legal Documents, 1998, § 7. www.archives.gov/federal-

register/write/legal-docs/

Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5 edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham,

th

NC, pp. 46-47. 59

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

5. Place words carefully

Sloppy word placement can cause ambiguity. To reduce ambiguity:

Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.

Put conditionals such as “only” or “always” and other modifiers next to the

words they modify. Write “you are required to provide only the following,” not

“you are only required to provide the following.”

Put long conditions after the main clause. Write “complete form 9-123 if you own

more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes,” not “if you own more than 50 acres and

cultivate grapes, complete form 9-123.”

In the left column below, it’s difficult to figure out which words relate to the forest

products, which to the tribe, and which to the payments. The right column eliminates

this problem by dividing the material into shorter sentences and pulling together the

Confusing word placement Clearer construction

Upon the request of an Indian tribe, the If a tribe (you) asks us, we will require

Secretary may provide that the purchaser purchasers of your forest products to

of the forest products of such tribe, deposit their payment into an account

which are harvested under a timber sale that you designate.

contract, permit, or other harvest sale a. You can instruct us to deposit

direct payments of the gross proceeds of payments into the account.

such forest products, less any amounts b. We will withhold from the deposit

segregated as forest management any forest management deductions

deductions pursuant to section 163.25, under section 163.25.

into accounts designated by such Indian

tribe.

You will eliminate many potential sources of ambiguity by writing shorter sentences.

The less complex the sentence, the clearer the meaning and less chance that ambiguity

will creep in. Still, you must watch how you place words even in short sentences. In the

example below, the audience may have to read the original statement several times to

realize that we don’t mean, “If you really want to have a disability <” 60

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

Ambiguous construction Clearer construction

If you are determined to have a If we determine that you have a

disability, we will pay you the disability, we will pay you the

following: following:

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2003, Oxford University Press, Oxford and

New York, pp. 566-567. 61

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

c. Paragraphs

Write short paragraphs and include only one topic in each paragraph. 62

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

1. Have a topic sentence

for your audience before you provide them with the details. If you flood readers with

details first, they become impatient and may resist hearing your message. A good topic

sentence draws the audience into your paragraph.

We often write the way we think, putting our premises first and then our conclusion. It

may be the natural way to develop our thoughts, but we wind up with the topic

sentence at the end of the paragraph. Move it up front and let users know where you’re

going. Don’t make readers hold a lot of information in their heads before they get to

Also, busy readers want to skim your document, stopping only for what they want or

need to know. You can help them by giving each paragraph a good introduction.

Readers should be able to get good general understanding of your document by

A side benefit of good topic sentences (and good headings) is that they help you see if

your document is well-organized. If it isn’t, topic sentences make it easier for you to

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.

65-66. 63

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

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