The Economics of Plain Language


Carol Ann Wilson




carol.wilson@itisinc.com; carolwilson@earthlink.net


                                                                  author of

Plain Language Pleadings

(Prentice Hall 1996, ISBN 0-13-199639-8)




Presented to


American Medical Writers Association

Southwest Chapter

Thursday, March 13, 2003

School of Public Health

Texas Medical Center.

Houston, Texas







The Economics of Plain Language



Joe Kimble, a law professor at the Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, has written a monograph titled “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please” for The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing. It outlines many studies proving that plain language saves money, and I have six copies to give away today.


Early work in this field was done by Siegel & Gale in New York, followed by the Department of Commerce. An early work, which may be available under FOIA, is Plain English for Better Business: How Plain English Works for Business. Twelve Case Studies.” Professor Kimble’s work is another milestone in the evidence that plain language saves money.


Why would plain language principles save money? Consider these thoughts:

 

         It streamlines procedures and paperwork, makes it easier to train staff, and increases staff productivity and morale.

 

         It reduces confusion, complaints, and claims, and it improves customer satisfaction.

 

         It increases sales and raises the company’s standing in the marketplace.


FCC Rewrote Regulations for CB Radios in 1977


When these regulations were written in legalese, the agency needed five full-time staff members to answer questions from the public. When they rewrote them in plain language, the agency was able to reassign those five staff members.


VA Rewrote Form Letters in 1991


For the old letter, 750 went out and 1,128 calls were received.

For the new letter, 710 went out and 192 calls were received.

The agency estimated that if that one letter were adopted by all VA offices, the savings would be more than $40,000 a year.


Naval Officers 1989 Study

 

A business memo was sent to naval officers, written in a plain style and in a bureaucratic style. Officers who read the plain memo had a much higher comprehension rate but it also took 17 to 23 percent less time to read, and they felt less need to reread it.


Two years later, the authors of the study put dollar figures on their results. They determined the average hourly pay for a naval officer and applied the reading-time differences from their original study. They estimated the savings if all naval personnel could read plain documents to be between $250 and $350 million a year.


Allen-Bradley Rewrote Its Computer Manuals


After surveying the marketplace and learning that documents accompanying the product were the second most important factor in influencing customers to buy, Allen-Bradley hired writing consultants and rewote its computer manuals. As just one benefit, calls to the company’s phone help center dropped from 50 a day to two a month.


Federal Express Rewrote Its Operations Manuals


Between 1992 and 1995 FedEx rewrote its ground-operations manuals. With the old manuals, readers searched an average of 5 minutes and found the correct answer only 53 percent of the time. With the new manuals, the average search time dropped to 3.6 minutes and the success rate increased to 80 percent. FedEx conservatively estimated that the company saved $400,000 the first year, just in time searching–not counting costs resulting from getting wrong answers.


Survey Among U. S. Lawyers and Judges


Joe Kimble and Joe Prokop sent a survey in 1987 to lawyers and judges in Michigan, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. They asked readers to indicate their preference for the A or B version of paragraphs from legal documents, with one being in plain language and the other in traditional legal style. They did not refer anywhere to either “legalese” or “plain English.” Their cover letter said the survey was to “test language trends in the legal profession.”


A total of 1,462 judges and lawyers returned the survey, and in all four states they preferred the plain-language versions by margins of 80 to 86 percent.


California Study of Appellate Judges and Law Clerks


Ten judges and 33 research attorneys at the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles were given alternative versions of two paragraphs from appellate briefs. One was from a brief and the other was from a petition for rehearing. They were not labeled whether they were “traditional legalese” or “plain English.” They judges and attorneys were asked to rate the two versions in several categories indicating how persuasive, logical, and comprehensive each version was and whether the writer was from a prestigious firm.


The results: by statistically significant margins, the readers rated the legalese version to be substantively weaker and less persuasive than the plain English versions. They also inferred that the writers of the plain-language versions came from prestigious firms.



More Recent Studies


The VA rewrote a letter asking vets to update their named beneficiaries at a saving of $650,000 a year.


An SEC attorney with Pfizer sent two short plain-language letters to the stockholders following a stock split and explaining “book entry.” The letters were so well understood that only 20 percent requested actual certificates.


A new Social Security form sent to 125 million people each year has been redrafted in plain language and calls are already down by half, at a saving of $650,000 a year.


New Zealand income tax legislation has been rewritten in plain language and they estimate a 65 percent improvement in comprehension.


In Johannesburg, Robert Gentle conducted a study of shareholder documents and 100 percent understood the plain language version.


Associated Press did a study on plain legal language, and CNN picked it up and took a vote. The result was that 92 percent responding said legal documents should be written in plain language.


 

So you get the picture. Writing concisely does, indeed, affect the bottom line.




Let’s look at some more true examples:


From OSHA:


The old regulation:

Means of Egress. Ways of exit access and the doors to exits to which they lead shall be so designed and arranged as ro be clearly recognizable as such. Hangings or draperies shall not be placed over exit doors or otherwise so located as to obscure any exit. Mirrors shall not be placed on exit doors. Mirrors shall not be placed in or adjacent to any exit in such a manner as to confuse the direction of the exit.


Just typical of government, isn't it? (Or have you never tried to read instructions for a Form 1040?) I dare say there are some people who don't even know the meaning of the word "egress." A story goes that P. T. Barnum would put up a sign at the circus that said "To the Egress." People followed the sign, thinking they were going to see some exotic animal, and suddenly found themselves on the street! Well, here is the proposed new regulation, which went from 76 words to 14.


The new regulation, as rewritten, entitled "Exit Routes":

An exit door must be free of signs or decorations that obscure its visibility.


Do you get the point? Do you agree that the rewrite is much, much better and has lost none of the meaning of the convoluted old version? Even though you might have understood the original version, who has the time to read such gobbledygook?


Another true example, this time from our own courts in the Walters v. Reno case. The decision came down a year ago, but did you hear about it? Did anybody?


In this case, the court found that certain government forms were so difficult to read that they violated due process requirements that people be given "notice" of possible legal actions against them, and of the legal consequences of their own actions.


The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that aliens subject to deportation based on INS charges that they committed document fraud did not get due process. The forms used by INS to tell the plaintiffs that they might be deported did not "simply and plainly communicate" legal consequences to the plaintiffs. The court ordered INS to redo the forms to communicate better. The court also ordered INS to refrain from deporting any alien whose case had been processed using the deficient forms!


Maria Walters and others v. United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, No. 96-36304, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (May 18, 1998). (Full text at http:///www.vcilp.org/Fed-Ct/Circuit/9th/opinions/9636304.htm.)


Philosophy & Literature publishes annual Bad Writing awards, and the "winners" are extremely bad. Here's an example from a recent contest, which is taken from Roy Bhaskar's Plato etc: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution (Verso, 1994) (and it's just one sentence):

 

Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal–of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/-Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.


Can you repeat that sentence in one breath?





Plain Language Principles

Carol Ann Wilson


An article I wrote that appears several places on the Internet discusses these seven plain language principles:

 

1.        Write for your reader; avoid jargon and legalese.

2.        Prefer the active voice over the passive.

3.        Use strong verbs and avoid turning verbs into nouns.

4.        Organize your thinking and you will organize your document.

5.        Omit unnecessary, useless, and weak words.

6.        Emphasize the positive and eliminate negatives–especially double negatives.

7.        Use good document design; plenty of white space, avoid all capitals and underlining, use serif typefaces, and use left-justified, ragged right margins.


I’m sure you have all heard about the Securities and Exchange Commission helping in this fight for plain English. After the SEC issued its order that certain documents were required to be in plain English and published guidelines, Stephen Wilbers gave us this article and rewrite exercises I’d like to share with you–and hope that you will share this with your bosses and cohorts–and anybody who will listen.


Write in Plain English

from Stephen Wilbers


Use the active voice with strong verbs.

Find hidden verbs.

Try personal pronouns.

Bring abstractions down to earth.

Omit superfluous words.

Write in the “positive.”

Use short sentences.

Keep the subject, verb, and object close together.

Keep your sentence structure parallel.





                      

Use the active voice with strong verbs.


Change the following sentences from the passive voice (where the subject is acted upon) to the active voice (where the subject performs the action).

 

Example: Change “The market's advances are often driven by large-capitalization stocks” to “Large-capitalization stocks often drive the market's advances.”

 

1.        An investment was made by me.

 

2.        A decision was made by the board to exclude the press and wear Hawaiian shirts when voting on important matters.

 

3.        Holdings among rate-sensitive stocks were reduced by the portfolio manager.

 

4.        In preparation for next month's meeting, a shirt with yellow flowers and a green background was purchased by Roger Chillingworth.

 

5.        We are now permitted by the Securities and Exchange Commission to combine mailings of certain materials.


Answers:

 

1.        I made an investment.

 

2.        The board decided to exclude the press and wear Hawaiian shirts when voting on important matters.

 

3.        The portfolio manager reduced holdings among rate-sensitive stocks.

 

4.        In preparation for next month's meeting, Roger Chillingworth purchased a shirt with yellow flowers and a green background.

 

5.        The Securities and Exchange Commission now permits us to combine mailings of certain materials.

 



Find hidden verbs.

 

Many thoughts can be expressed either with verbs (such as “recommend”) or with nouns

linked to weak verbs (such as “make a recommendation”). Choosing the verb rather than the noun usually produces a more concise, emphatic sentence.

 

A noun derived from a verb is called a nominalization. In the sentences below, change the nominalizations to verbs.

 

Example: Change “The board came to the realization that it needed to spiff up its image”

to “The board realized that it needed to spiff up its image.”

 

1.        Waldo made a search for the hidden profit.

 

2.        “So, now, do you stand in agreement with me, then?” the governor asked the legislature.

 

3.        I came to the realization that the Fund's performance is a reflection of the maximum sales charge of 5%.

 

4.        We have the expectation that the global economy will continue to make a recovery.

 

5.        There is a possibility of board rejection of “colorful casuals.”



Answers:

 

1.        Waldo searched for the hidden profit.

 

2.        “So, now, do you agree with me, then?” the governor asked the legislature.

 

3.        I realized that the Fund's performance reflects the maximum sales charge of 5%.

 

4.        We expect that the global economy will continue to recover.

 

5.        The board may reject “colorful casuals.”

 

 


Try personal pronouns.

 

Use personal pronouns such as “I,” “we,” and especially “you” to avoid abstractions and to speak directly to your reader. (Remember my“Write for Your Reader”? I believe it’s the first consideration for concise writing.)

 

Example: Change “The volatility of the market should be taken under consideration by

short-term investors in the selection and purchase of stocks” to “If you are a short-term

investor, you should consider the volatility of the market when you select which stocks to

purchase.”



Revise the following sentence:

 

It is our belief that, based on an assessment of the accounting principles used and a review of the significant estimates made by management, as well as an evaluation of the overall financial statement presentation, our audits provide a reasonable basis on which recommendations are made.

 

 

Answers

 

After assessing the accounting principles used, reviewing the significant estimates made by management, and evaluating the financial statement, we believe that our recommendations are reasonable.

                                      OR

We believe that our audits support our recommendations for the following reasons:

 (1) We have assessed the accounting principles used;

 (2) we have reviewed the significant estimates

      made by management; and

 (3) we have evaluated the financial statement.



Bring abstractions down to earth.

 

Prefer simple language and concrete terms to abstractions.


Example: Change “The Boomer Fund has achieved capital appreciation of your funds” to “The value of your shares in the Boomer Fund has increased.”

 

Revise the following sentences:

 

1.        There is a frequent nonconcurrence in perspectives between the committee chair and the speaker.

 

2.        A cacophonous manifestation of tempers erupted between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

 

3.        Your financial adviser should not be held accountable in the event you experience a decline in investment income or a net loss in total assets.


Answers

 

1.        The committee chair and the speaker frequently disagree.

 

2.        Tweedledum and Tweedledee started shouting at each other.

 

3.        Don't blame us if you lose money.

 



Omit superfluous words.

 

Make every word count. Concise writing is clearer and more emphatic than wordy writing.


Example: Change “In view of the fact that your reader is busy, I would suggest that you make every effort to be as brief as humanly possible” to “Because your reader is busy, I suggest that you try to be brief.”

 

In Plain English for Lawyers, Richard Wydick makes the point this way: “Pity the reader.”

 

Eliminate the unnecessary words in the following sentences:

 

1.        In the eventuality that you encounter unexpected and otherwise unforeseeable problems, please apprise me of the situation.

 

2.        It is expected by the board that the governor will assume the duties and responsibilities of a stockbroker subsequent to his departure from office.

 

3.        In order to make progress in improving your writing skills, it is imperative that you devote yourself to the study of the principles of good writing.


Answers

 

1.        Let me know if you have any problems.

 

2.        The board expects the governor to become a stockbroker after he leaves office.

[Note that the active voice is more concise than the passive voice.]

 

3.        To improve your writing skills, you must study of the principles of good writing.

 


Write in the “positive.”

 

As a rule, it takes fewer words to say what something is than to say what it is not.

 

Example: Change “Advisers who do not take time to study financial statements do not

have more credibility than those who do,” to “Financial advisers who take time to study

financial statements have more credibility than those who don't.”

 

Revise the following sentences:

 

1.        My nose is not unlike a red, red rose.

 

2.        You may not receive these dividends unless you are the primary beneficiary.

 

3.        Whose woods these are I do not think I do not know.

 

4.        Not often does the S&P 500 Index decline by more than 5% in one day.

 

5.        Not many investors enjoy wildly fluctuating markets.

 


Answers

 

1.        My nose is like a red, red rose.

 

2.        You may receive these dividends only if you are the primary beneficiary.

 

3.        Whose woods these are I think I know.

 

4.        Rarely does the S&P 500 Index decline by more than 5% in one day.

 

5.        Few investors enjoy wildly fluctuating markets.

 

 


Use short sentences.

 

The period provides a critical pause, a moment of reflection, an opportunity for your

hard-working reader to ponder your meaning, admire your insight, bask in your brilliance,

and absorb your wisdom.

 

The period is a marvelous device. Use it often to punctuate your thoughts.

 

Break the following long sentences into shorter units:

 

1.        According to Nancy Smith, Director, Office of Investor Education and Assistance, three people, Ann Wallace, from the Division of Corporation Finance, Carolyn Miller, formerly of Siegel & Gale and now with the SEC, and William Lutz, author and Professor of English at Rutgers University, poured their hearts and minds into the plain English handbook that inspired me to create these exercises, which you are enjoying as well as finding useful, I hope, and so all of the credit and none of the blame goes to them.

 

2.        It's a simple process: After the portfolio managers find companies with the dual attraction of dependable earnings growth and attractive valuations by focusing on their long-term underlying worth, they determine the underlying worth of those companies by carefully comparing the value of their corporate assets with their potential returns before determining if a company's stock is mispriced relative to that underlying worth. Even people who are a few sandwiches short of a picnic should be able to understand it.

 

Answers

 

1.        Nancy Smith, Director, Office of Investor Education and Assistance, acknowledges three people: Ann Wallace, from the Division of Corporation Finance; Carolyn Miller, formerly of Siegel & Gale and now with the SEC; and William Lutz, author and Professor of English at Rutgers University. They poured their hearts and minds into the plain English handbook. According to Smith, all of the credit and none of the blame should go to them. I agree. In fact, their effort inspired me to create these exercises, which I hope you are enjoying as well as finding useful.

 

2.        It's a simple process: First, the portfolio managers find companies with the dual attraction of dependable earnings growth and attractive valuations. They do this by focusing on their long-term underlying worth. They determine that underlying worth by carefully comparing the value of corporate assets with potential returns. Then they determine if a company's stock is mispriced relative to that underlying worth. Even people who are a few sandwiches short of a picnic should be able to understand it.


Keep the subject, verb, and object close together.

 

Readers cannot make sense of your sentence until they see how the subject relates to the verb and the verb relates to its object, so keep those critical parts within sight of each other.

 

Example: Change “Portfolio managers responding to the interest-rate rise reduced among

rate-sensitive stocks such as banks and credit card companies holdings” to “In response to

the interest-rate rise, portfolio managers reduced holdings among rate-sensitive stocks such as banks and credit card companies.”

 

Rearrange the following sentences to keep their subjects, verbs, and objects close together:

 

1.        Tropical colors, you may not think, and gray hair, which our board members have, go well together, but they surprisingly do.

 

2.        Management, anticipating reform in health care, decreased what people in the business like to call “exposure” to things like pharmaceuticals.

Answers:

 

1.        You may not think tropical colors and our board members’ gray hair go well together, but suprisingly they do.

 

2.        Anticipating reform in health care, management decreased exposure to pharmaceuticals.

 

 

 

Keep your sentence structure parallel.

 

Once you establish a pattern, you must stay with it. Your reader expects consistency. If

Benjamin Franklin had said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a young man (or woman)

healthy, wealthy, and a stockbroker,” we wouldn't be quoting him today.

 

Example: Change “If you want to find out more about our offerings, visit our Web site after calling our toll-free number with a request for a password,” to “If you want to find out more about our offerings, call our toll-free number, request a password, and visit our Web site."

 

Revise the following sentences to maintain parallel structure:

 

1.        She was healthy, wealthy, and an athlete.

 

2.        For additional information about this fund, you may call the Securities and Exchange Commission at 1-800-SEC-0330, or what you might want to do is access other information about the fund on the Commission's Internet sit at http://www.sec.gov.

 


Answers:


1. She was healthy, wealthy, and athletic.

 

2.        For more information about this fund, you may call the Securities and Exchange Commission at 1-800-SEC-0330, or you may access it on the Commission's Internet it at http://www.sec.gov.