On this date in 2009, Representative Bruce Bradley, an Iowa Democrat, introduced the Plain Writing Act to the United States House of Representatives. The stated purpose of the bill was “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” (1).
Bradley was not the first politician to attempt to make government language more clear and jargon-free. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also an advocate of plain, clear English. In 1942 an official wrote the following memo about wartime blackouts:
Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.
Roosevelt demanded a revision, saying “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows” (2).
Also during World War II, in 1944, a Texas congressman named Maury Maverick began a crusade against the unintelligible multisyllabic language of his colleagues. He coined his own word for this fuzzy English: gobbledygook.
When Maury was asked what inspired his colorful word, he said, “It must have come in a vision. Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook” (3).
Sixty-six years later and approximately one month before Thanksgiving, Bruce Bradley’s bill became law. It was signed by President Barack Obama on October 13, 2010. Today, therefore, we can say, “Write in plain, clear English — it’s the law!”
Of course, writing in plain, clear language is not easy. As writer William Zinsser says, it is hard work and requires deliberate effort:
Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does.
Today’s Challenge: Leaner Bacon
How can you translate 17th century English into plain, clear 21st century English? Read Francis Bacon’s essay ‘On Revenge,” and then write a paraphrase of the essay in which you restate Bacon’s ideas in the clearest, most concise language possible.
Of Revenge by Francis Bacon
Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon. And Solomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man, to pass by an offence. That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters. There is no man doth a wrong, for the wrong’s sake; but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man, for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong, merely out of ill-nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other. The most tolerable sort of revenge, is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed, the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man’s enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one. Some, when they take revenge, are desirous, the party should know, whence it cometh. This is the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be, not so much in doing the hurt, as in making the party repent. But base and crafty cowards, are like the arrow that flieth in the dark. Cosmus, duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable; You shall read (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our enemies; but you never read, that we are commanded to forgive our friends. But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God’s hands, and not be content to take evil also? And so of friends in a proportion. This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Caesar; for the death of Pertinax; for the death of Henry the Third of France; and many more. But in private revenges, it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.
Quotation of the Day: A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? –George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”
3-Quinion, Michael. “GOBBLEDYGOOK OR GOBBLEDEGOOK.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gob1.htm 4 –