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A Word, Please: Federal law places limits on unclear speech

From time to time, I invite readers to play “See if you can spot the error in the following passage.”

Today, I offer an unusual spin on that game — a challenge I call “See if you can spot the crime in the following passage.” Yes, a real violation of federal law. Here we go.

“The amount of expenses reimbursed to a claimant under this subpart shall be reduced by any amount that the claimant receives from a collateral source.

In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this subpart for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this subpart.”

No, the legal violation is not that stuff about the subpart being reduced by a collateral source. It’s not the fact that the claimant is forced to subrogate the claim for payment. It’s not even how expenses may have been reimbursed from another source.

It’s the whole passage. The whole. Darn. Passage.

Welcome to the Plain Writing Act of 2010, a law introduced by then-Congressman from Iowa Bruce Braley and that the U.S. House of Representatives passed on my birthday that year.

My present? Federal government gobbledygook like the passage above, which I pilfered from Wikipedia, is against the law.

Instead, government writing needs to read more like this: “If you get a payment from a collateral source, we will reduce our payment by the amount you get. If you get payments from us and from a collateral source for the same expenses, you must pay us back the amount we paid you.”

The Plain Writing Act requires that federal executive agencies use clear, simple writing in most things they publish. The act even has a guidebook on plain writing that’s published online for anyone to see. And if you’re one of the countless Americans who can’t understand why your writing causes readers to beat themselves unconscious with their own keyboards, I recommend taking a peek. The guidelines are at plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines.

Here are some highlights.

Don’t turn verbs into nouns. Instead of conducting a review of something, just review it. Instead of making application for something, just apply. If you’re tempted to pursue the addition of something, don’t. Just add it. There’s a grammar-jargon word for these noun-ified actions. They’re called nominalizations. And nine times out of 10 they’re truly terrible. The term also applies to adjectives made into nouns. Compare “He possesses handsomeness” to “He’s handsome.”

Write short sentences. This one’s a bit controversial in the creative writing world. But in government writing, it’s just common sense. Short sentences reduce the risk that you’ll lose track of what you’re saying. And they reduce the risk that your reader will lose consciousness while you’re saying it. Skilled writers can handle long sentences with grace. Yet even they usually steer clear. Anytime clarity is more important than bragging rights in literary circles, keep your sentences short.

Avoid abbreviations. That sound you hear? It’s a chorus of angels singing while I conduct. I’m rabidly anti-abbreviation. To me, using unfamiliar abbreviations and initialisms is downright rude. If I interrupt a sentence you’re reading to tell you parenthetically that the Casagrande Institute for Eliminating Unnecessary Abbreviations and Initialisms has initials and those initials are CIEUAI, I’m ordering you to memorize this alphabet soup because you’ll need it again before we’re finished.

It’s like a legend for how to read a document. But we already have a better legend: the English language. It’s the writer’s job to communicate in the reader’s language. So as the Los Angeles Times and other major publications advise, it’s better to call it “the institute” on subsequent references than the CIEUAI, whose meaning I’m certain you’ve already forgotten.

Avoid passive voice. Passive voice happens when the object of a transitive verb is made the grammatical subject of a sentence: The coffee was made by June. Sometimes that’s fine. But usually it’s better to say, “June made the coffee.”

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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