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The BUSKLAW June Newsletter: Is There a Moral Imperative to Plain English? Part 2: Conclusions


In last month's newsletter, we gave three examples of wordy, unclear, racist, pompous, and dull writing: as an opening sentence to a Bizarro-World version of Stephen King's The Gunslinger, as the beginning of a typical "big law firm"-drafted contract, and bureaucratic (including political) statements. We then compared these monsters of prose to their plain-English versions. But so what? Is poor literary, legal, business, and government writing merely a mote in the eye or something more sinister? 

Let's start with bureaucratese. The Trump Administration didn't invent it but surely has taken this dark art to new heights (or depths). And their penchant for typographical errors is a new twist. In this recent Business Insider article, 84% of 1,043 people surveyed said they would be less likely to trust the government if its communications contained spelling or grammatical mistakes. Specifically addressing Trump's notorious tweets containing such gems as "unpresidented," "tapp my phones," "honered," "Educatuon," and the infamous "covfefe," 81% of the survey respondents said that they were "less confident the White House can fulfill its mission," using descriptions such as "incompetent, lazy, careless, and unprofessional." 

Typos are one thing, but the effect of bureaucratese is even more pernicious. In his book, 1984, George Orwell used the word "doublespeak" to portray political language that serves to distort and obfuscate reality and "defend the indefensible." And he wrote that "where there's a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms." The late David Foster Wallace, noted literary critic and author of the popular novel, Infinite Jest, observed, "Officialese is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose."

I believe that bureaucratese is the enemy of a free society. The practice of intentionally spouting this crap via social media, press releases, or speeches is immoral.

Next up is legal jargon. A scary fact about legal jargon is that a recent poll of lawyers showed that 25% aren't concerned about it. Perhaps that is because legalese creates ambiguity, ambiguity engenders argument over meaning, arguments become litigation, and business lawyers who litigate on a regular basis tend to become rich, much to the distress of their clients who pay their fees. There is a long litany of legalisms that have been fodder for courts to puzzle over, including:
  • best efforts
  • herein
  • therein
  • hereby
  • thereof
  • shall
  • and/or
  • hold harmless
Dr. Steven Pinker, an award-winning cognitive scientist, Harvard professor, and author of the recent bestseller The Sense of Style, believes in the "high moral value in reducing legalese to a bare minimum. There's so much waste and suffering that results from impenetrable legalese. People don't understand what their rights are because they don't understand a contract or they waste money hiring expensive lawers to decipher contracts for them."

Legal philosophers can debate whether contract language can be inherently immoral, but contractual legal jargon is on the border of that conclusion. 

The final question is whether poorly-crafted fiction is immoral. Of course not, but it's a foolish waste of time to the hapless author who wrote it and to those poor souls who paid to wade through it. 

Should we end our moral indictment against jargon here? Not quite. 50 years ago this month, The Beatles left their usual creative path with their famous Sgt Pepper album. And I too am leaving the standard reasons for plain English in my July newsletter, where we'll examine if a Judeo-Christian perspective justifies the use - and encouragement - of plain English. (Warning: this addendum won't be suitable for the "spiritually challenged.") I'll announce its publication via Twitter, so please sign up for my Twitter feed (@BUSKLAW) if you haven't already done so.
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