These word policemen are on guard to keep the language clear and simple

The crack team of federal experts proceeded carefully and deliberately and activated a large network of experts in order to avoid missteps.

Clever guidance was critical to tackling the annoying case that had grown cold for the organized crime division of the Mesa, Arizona Police Department.

A word or two? Hyphen or no?

The case of how to describe these tiny ziplocs preferred by drug dealers would not be completed quickly. The matter would be analyzed in an exchange spanning 44 messages on an obscure government listing server.

This is another arm of law enforcement – a group of language police officers represented by Congress a decade ago. Your solution to the Mesa mystery: microbaggie. One word, no hyphen, and a plan to petition Webster to add microbaggie to the dictionary.

Column one

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

Washington's top management has hardly valued clear, precise, or correct communication in recent years. Routine presidential considerations turned into indecipherability. "I call it the black hole," said Annetta Cheek, a former bureaucrat in her mid-70s who helped start the government's cleartext movement. But the deep state of simple language persisted.

A loose network of jargon critics, crusaders for clarity, and gatekeepers of grammar, they regularly refer to the little-known law on simple writing that was signed into law at the beginning of the Obama era. In doing so, they nudge a government that tends to be overcomplicated and incomprehensible in order to make sense.

They persist in dragging the red tape using methods that are generally subtle and gentle, but occasionally dull.

"We don't just want to sit here with our red pen and wait to mark things," said Barbra Kingsley of the Center for Plain Language, a non-governmental organization that sometimes acts as an outer muscle and bureaucracies shame it, overwhelmed with acronyms and polysyllabic words.

"But sometimes you have to shout things out … I've seen some scriptures that are incredibly awful. I collect bad examples."

The center picks the worst of the worst for its annual WTF award. Yes, it represents what you think: work that has failed.

The last one went to a street sign:

"PERSONS REMOVE ALL ISSUES OF PETS THAT PERSUANT UNDER LAW No. 122-87."

In other words, clean up your dog's mess.

Winner of

Center for Plain Language WTF Winner, Work That Failed Award.

(Dina Al-Shibeeb)

The Department of Energy, a former repeat offender, was called for bad behavior in a monolingual “testimony” written by a jury that rounds off unwieldy government communications.

The review highlighted a Trump-era headline on the department's homepage as an example of the worst kind of jargon-filled horror show:

"NNSA's MSIPP manager traveled to KCNS and NETL to see the benefits of the program for its participants."

WTF indeed.

"You'd think it's just about using the right words, but it's more than that," said David Lipscomb, who teaches writing and leads the testimony at Georgetown University. "It's about clarity, access, empowerment."

The Department of Energy improved his game the following year. The most popular page – "How do wind turbines work?"- won the coveted" Most Improved "award from the police in plain language." I love the sincerity of this page, "wrote one judge. But old habits die hard. The department's mark of" writing quality "in 2020: D.

Other agencies have also been relegated into what a bureaucrat might refer to as domesticated emergency shelter for dogs.

Last year, seven got an F rating for breaking the simple writing law. All but one failed again in 2019: the departments for trade, housing and urban development, interior affairs, transport and finance, and the environmental protection agency.

The presentation of the report on the Trump administration's public health guidelines amid the pandemic was characteristically succinct: "These pages are disappointing."

Shortly before the pandemic, the most passionate clear text evangelists from around the world gathered in Oslo, where they devoured the content of panels with titles such as “Oh, shit, digitization means we need flawless written communication” and “Clear text and interaction design” – a magical combination! "

The followers of clarity saw progress in the plans for an officially recognized "international standard for simple languages". It's about filing a petition with a global regulator that has statutes that, frankly, could use their own dose of plaintext.

"When we're not fully married to plain language, we take it pretty seriously," said Katherine Spivey, a US General Services Administration official who helps operate the state-sanctioned Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) .

Miriam Vincent, a lawyer for the Federal Registry Office, recalled months of small group discussions about the use of hyphens.

"My boyfriend's husband once said he would only get us a nit farm since we just sit and pick nits all day," she said.

PLAIN members meet regularly in conference rooms deep in the maze of agency buildings in Washington to discuss language. But this is not an "ode to a Greek urn". These writers prefer precise power points over poetry.

There are occasional bursts of artistic expression. Michigan law professor Joseph Kimble, an early leader in the Simple Writing Movement, recently published a children's book about a cream puff, entitled "Mr. Mouthful is learning its lesson. "

Some agencies did not go out of their way to spread the gospel of clear communication, even though the General Services Administration initially decreed that Spivey could not speak to the media.

Compliance with the Plain Language Act has made a leap under Trump, with simple writing positions that every agency must hire to fill any remaining vacancies, and it has required that simple writing compliance reports remain unwritten.

But in those dark days in front of the language police station, it was much worse.

It drove Annetta Cheek crazy.

"The writing was terrible," Cheek said of her early reign in the late 1970s, drafting regulations for the National Park Service. Cheek is a trained archaeologist who spent her retired days in the rolling hills of a suburb of Virginia between advancing the crusade for plaintext and caring for her two spirited pit bulls, Aodnait (Celtic for "fire") and Keegan (Celtic for "little") divided and fiery ”).

Wange is something of a pit bull himself. She ignored the relentless parade of prosecutors and regulators who insisted that opaque and confusing language was the only way to be legally precise.

The movement impressed the Clinton White House, which began drafting an executive order requiring simple language in government – until a government attorney deepened the idea because he found the mission not to be appropriately "judicial".

"Given some of the stupid executive orders that are coming out, I don't know how he said that," Cheek said. Soon after, Vice President Al Gore took over the crusade of clear communication.

Gore turned up at agencies to award the "No Gobbledygook" award for improved writing. It took the shape of a baby beanie called "Gobbles".

Gore highlighted “before and after” stories where horrific writing was polished into examples of clarity. "He was perfect for reading the 'before,'" said Cheek. "He is not the most stimulating public figure. ”

It turns out that the government's hocus-pocus is costing taxpayers money. Kimble wrote a book of case studies detailing the hours worked by employees that help taxpayers navigate impenetrable rules, guidelines, and forms.

However, some agencies didn't feel it and didn't change. At this point the Congress was engaged.

"The hardest step was getting someone to sponsor this," said Cheek. "It's a strange thing."

Apparently not to then-rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat who took agencies that had bad grades on their testimonials in the clear, into the hearing rooms of the house.

Nowadays control is more likely to come from the growing train of police in plain language. The passionate study of microbaggie, for example, was influenced by the work of a hyphenated subcommittee that met for months during the George W. Bush administration.

Some of the plaintext cops recently investigated the question of whether to use potties for medical terms when they caused lay people to experience digestive problems. One military editor was pretty much against it. Other worried legions of Americans may not know the technical term for their discomfort: constipation.

Fortunately, UK health officials had hosted a webinar on this very dilemma. It was accompanied by an article: "Pee and Poo and the Language of Health."

True to form, the British had been more progressive in addressing this health care puzzle. An index from the US Centers for Disease Control titled "Everyday Words for Health Communication" has a lot to say about how government clerks deal with terms like "contamination" and "contagion".

But constipation? The CDC index does not affect this.

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