Skip to main content

The BUSKLAW March Newsletter: Of Pie and Plain English


I love pie and plain English about equally, although plain English is less fattening. Pie - especially the caramel toffee apple variety - for Thanksgiving is especially grand because afterward, you can eat leftover pie for breakfast without a lot of guilt. And chances are that the rest of the household won't consider pie a suitable breakfast food, so you're good to go. 

Grand Rapids, Michigan, is blessed with an excellent source of pies: Sweetie-licious. Until recently, they had two locations: one in GR's Downtown Market and the other in beautiful East Grand Rapids. I grew up in EGR and still fond of the place. So it was very convenient to journey across town to Sweetie's EGR location to pick up a pie for holidays (or when the pie lust grew to be unbearable).

Because life isn't fair, Sweetie-licious closed its EGR location several months ago. (But mercifully their Downtown Market location is still going strong.) When I sauntered past their empty EGR storefront recently, I noticed the above sign posted on the door. Yikes! The place is haunted by the ghost of bureaucratese, a style of language held to be characteristic of bureaucrats and marked by abstractions, jargon, euphemisms, and circumlocutions. Bureaucratese is the close brother of the legal mumbo jumbo that plagues most contracts. The venerable Kent County Health Department should know better! 

Let's see if we can revise this Notice to be more user-friendly. We'll leave the NOTICE title and the Kent County Health Department "signature" alone and concentrate on the mighty text. How about the following:


THE KENT COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT MUST INSPECT AND LICENSE THIS SPACE BEFORE IT MAY BE CONSTRUCTED, REMODELED, OR OPERATED FOR FOOD SERVICE.  

This revision accomplishes the same thing as the original gobbledygook in refreshing, easy-to-understand plain-English. Here's a list of the changes and the reason for each:
  • We changed the negative prohibition in favor of a positive command in the active voice.  
  • "Facility" is too vague. Any empty retail space is not a "facility." Why not just call it a "space"?
  • "Shall" is archaic. "Must" is better! 
  • There is no reason for "REMODELED" and "ALTERED." They mean the same thing in this context, so let's ditch "ALTERED." 
  • "ESTABLISHMENT" is just silly! Just change the phrase to say "FOR FOOD SERVICE."
  • I deleted "APPROVD" (sic) because obviously the the Kent County Health Department won't issue a license for operation unless they first approve the construction and remodeling of the space.   
You might wonder why converting this Notice into plain English is a worthy exercise. The reason is because bureaucratese insults the intelligence of the reader and lends false credibility to the government agency behind it. And the last thing we need in this day and age is a government agency - whether federal, state or local - plagued by a credibility gap. So it makes sense for us to call out stupid jargon whenever we come across it, even in our search for pie!  
________________________________________

If you find this post worthwhile, please consider sharing it with your colleagues. The link to this blog is www.busklaw.blogspot.com and my website is www.busklaw.comThanks! 

Comments

Sandy Cain said…
Just my opinion.....but if lawyers use $10 words, it's awfully hard to justify billing $400/hour. Plain English? Oh, no! Might have to bill only $200/hour!

Popular posts from this blog

The BUSKLAW May Newsletter: Is There a Moral Imperative to Plain English? Part 1 - Examples

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." 

Thus begins Stephen King's epic story of the gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and the popular Dark Tower series of novels describing his adventures. But King didn't have to write this sentence that way; he could have consulted with the typical lawyer, politician, or company PR department first. Had he done so, the sentence may have appeared so:

"The bad hombre who was dressed mostly in dark clothing and running fast across an arid land was pursued by a multi-armed, extremely dangerous, and notorious vigilante."
The difference in these two sentences is clear. King's concise short sentence creates an image that grabs the reader's attention and raises provocative questions. Who is the man in black? Who is the gunslinger? Why is he after the man in black? But the Bizarro World Stephen King sentence - with its ethnic slur, passive voice, ambiguity, suppositions, and superfluous adjectives …

A BUSKLAW Newsletter Aside: Links to My Michigan Bar Journal Plain-Language Articles

Since my retirement from in-house corporate law in 2014, I've written or co-written several articles about using plain-language in contracts for the Michigan Bar Journal. And a new article has recently appeared in the October 2017 issue. But those articles haven't been a lone endeavor in any sense; I've had several plain-language experts give me their input along the way:
Plain English Scholar and WMU-Cooley Law School Distinguished Professor Emeritus Joe Kimblewho invited me to write for the Journal to begin with and has since freely given me editorial advice that not only benefits the particular article du jour but also helps my legal writing generally. And a hat tip to Journal Editor Linda Novak who has put, editorially-speaking, the "frosting on the cake" before publication of these articles. Michael Braem, J.D., Contract Manager of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, who has co-authored some of the articles with me. Michael has also becom…