Gore orders agencies to write in plain English

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Vice President Al Gore Monday ordered federal agencies to write all documents in plain English rather than bureaucratic legalese.

At a small business conference in Washington, Gore announced a monthly prize for federal employees who turn difficult-to-understand and drawn-out documents into clear and succinct examples of plain English writing.

"Here's a general guide to plain language: Short is better than long. Active is better than passive. It's O.K. to use pronouns like 'we' and 'you.' In fact, you should," Gore said. "When you apply these simple rules, a 72-word regulation can be shrunk down to six words. The title of a regulation can change from 'Means of Egress' to 'Exit Routes.' A letter to customers can create understanding instead of confusion and frustration."

In a memorandum to agency heads released Monday, President Clinton gave agencies until Oct. 1 to use plain language in all new documents, including letters, forms, notices and instructions. Agencies must write regulations in plain English beginning Jan. 1, 1999.

In addition, agencies have to rewrite documents written before Oct. 1, 1998 by Jan. 1, 2002. The rewrite order does not include regulations written before Jan. 1, 1999. Clinton said agencies "should consider rewriting existing regulations in plain language when you have the opportunity and resources to do so."

Gore gave several examples of documents that agencies rewrote in plain English. One OSHA standard used to read: "Ways of exit access and the doors to exits to which they lead shall be so designed and arranged as to be clearly recognizable as such. Hangings or draperies shall not be placed over exit doors or otherwise so located as to conceal or obscure any exit. Mirrors shall not be placed on exit doors. Mirrors shall not be placed in or adjacent to any exit in such a manner as to confuse the direction of exit."

OSHA rewrote the standard to read: "An exit door must be free of signs or decorations that obscure its visibility."

Gore said the standard could be even clearer. "The words 'Obscure its visibility' still have a little bit of that gobbledygook, turkey-language ring to it," Gore said. "I was trying my own hands at it: 'Don't put up anything that makes it hard to see the exit door.'"

Gore said the name of the prize federal employees can win each month for writing clearly is the "Gobbledygook Elimination Prize." Federal employees with a knack for words will win a button with a turkey head with a slash through it.

"I hope the competition for this award will be just as keen as it has been for the Hammer Award," Gore said. Hammer awards go to federal employees for successful efforts to reinvent agencies.

The National Partnership for Reinventing Government has launched a Web site, Plainlanguage.gov, with guidance for federal employees on using simpler English. The site includes examples of letters, regulations, forms and manuals.

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