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Plain Language Act Passed

It’s rare that the federal government ventures into anything that directly impacts design, but this week the Senate finally voted in favor of rules directing federal agencies to use “plain language” in public documents. But the Plain Language Act isn’t law yet! Now it goes back to the House (which passed the act 386-33 over the summer) — there are two versions of the bill which have to be reconciled. Yes, if you’re wondering, the act is a model of plain writing, which it defines as “writing that the intended audience can readily understand and use because that writing is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing.”

Apparently, according to this report by, the bill had a hold placed on it by lameduck Utah senator Bob Bennett, who only agreed to lift it when he was able to meet personally with the bill’s House sponsor, Bruce Braley.

What’s interesting is that Braley’s bill was once more wide-sweeping than just federal agencies rules; the original bill was called the Plain Language in Health Insurance Act, and would have applied not only to Medicare and Medicaid but to any health insurer. Obviously, that sort of legislation would have been key to health care or insurance reform — how can you be a protected consumer if you can’t understand the rules, the benefits, or any sort of appeal process?

The Plain Language Act also marks a step to legislate how language is used at a federal level. In the US, we have no academy to purify our English, as the French and Spanish do for their languages; we have no national policies about how many indigenous languages will be officially recognized, as do the Chinese. We don’t even have an official language. While state laws abound restricting this or that aspect of language, as a nation, as far as language goes, we’re laissez faire. We recognize implicitly that language, which has no borders, can have no police. You simply can’t hell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Everything else goes.

That legislators like Bennett sat on this bill or voted against it in the House suggests that there’s a confused language lobby in this country. Who could possibly be against plain English? Michael Lewis had an answer in The Big Short: “It’s too much to expect the people who run big Wall Street firms to speak in plain English,” he wrote in a footnote, “since so much of their livelihood depends on people believing that what they do cannot be translated into plain English.”