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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 -  will likely cause the reader to check the number of pages in the book and decide whether it's worth the time. 

Now let's consider the typical introduction to a big-law-firm-drafted ("BLFD") business contract:

"THIS AGREEMENT ("Agreement") is dated as of the ____ day of _____________, 2017, by and between ABLE CORPORATION [address] hereinafter "BUYER," and BAKER CORPORATION [address] hereinafter "SELLER."
RECITALS
WHEREAS, BUYER engages in the retail sale of widgets which, among other things, include springs (the "Components") manufactured by SELLER; and
WHEREAS, SELLER is interested in selling the Components to BUYER; and 
WHEREAS, BUYER is willing to buy the Components from SELLER;
AGREEMENT
NOW, THEREFORE, for good and valuable consideration, the receipt and sufficiency of which is acknolwedged by SELLER, BUYER and SELLER, intending to be legally bound, hereby agree as follows:...................................................................."

Even though a business contract doesn't tell a story, this introduction has undesirable elements in common with the Bizarro World opening to The Dark Tower:
  • Superflouous and archaic words or phrases:  "by and between," "RECITALS," "WHEREAS," "AGREEMENT," the entire line about consideration, "NOW, THEREFORE," and "hereby."
  • Ambiguous words or phrases: "as of," "hereinafter," and "among other things."
  • Unnecessary words in capital letters and underlined: every one.
  • Poor grammar: "which include..."
  • Use of the passive voice: "manufactured by SELLER..."
  • Poor font: Times 
  • Underlining to show emphasis
Whoever is stuck reading this contract probably wishes they made a different career choice (or not, if they can bill by the hour). Consider this plain-English makeover:

"This Agreement, dated ___________________, 2017, is between Able Corporation [address] ("Able") and Baker Corporation [address] ("Baker"). 

Able manufactures springs (the "Springs") that are suitable for use in Baker's widgets. Baker wishes to buy Springs from Able. Able is willing to sell the Springs to Baker, so the parties agree as follows:........................................"

Like King's actual opening sentence, we have a clear and concise plain-language statement of what is happening. Gone are the elements that make the BLFD contract a nightmare. And the truly amazing news: the plain-language contract is "just as legal" as the BLFD document! 

Bureaucratese is the cousin to legal jargon. Consider the following examples:
  • The Trump Administration's lies are "alternative facts."
  • United Airlines' forcible removal of a seated, ticketed passenger is a "re-accommodation."
  • A company that lays off employees is "rightsizing." 
  • The result of rightsizing is the "new normal." 
  • Genocide is "ethnic cleansing."
  • Civilians killed in a military action are "collateral damage." 
  • If your medical plan is with an HMO, you have "a narrow-path health product." (No link on this one; actually experienced.)
So we've visited a spectrum of gobbledygook: Bizarro World Stephen King to tediously-drafted BLFD contracts to institutionally-broadcast deceptive terms of art. But does rejecting legalese and bureaucratese for plain English make any positive difference for society? That's the question for examination in the June issue of the BUSKLAW blog. Stay tuned!    
__________________________
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! 

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