Awards honor plain language and condemn jargon

An organization dedicated to ridding government and business of jargon announced on Wednesday it's accepting nominations for the best -- and worst examples -- of communication in those two fields.

The Center for Plain Language, a research and advocacy organization aimed at making government and business documents easy to understand for all Americans, is gearing up for its second annual awards, accepting nominations for the ClearMark and WonderMark honors in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. While the ClearMark awards are the best examples of clear communication, WonderMark honors are given to the worst examples of plain language.

Annetta Cheek, chairwoman of the center's executive board, has been fighting for legislation to mandate plain language in government since the mid-1990s. Cheek, a former employee at the Interior Department and the Federal Aviation Administration, said she was thrilled when President Obama signed the 2010 Plain Writing Act into law in October.

The law requires federal agencies to use plain language in all public documents such as letters, tax forms, notices and instructions by October 2011. Agencies also must designate a senior official to oversee implementation of plain language, and the Office of Management and Budget must develop guidance within six months of the law taking effect.

"It seems that the public hasn't gotten engaged in this issue," said Cheek on Tuesday. But, she pointed out, people always are quick to complain about how difficult it is to decipher certain government or financial forms. "People seem to accept that it's just the way life is," Cheek said.

Cheek believes the new law will give government employees who advocate for clear communication a tool to finally make things happen at their agencies. She hopes the ClearMark and WonderMark awards will "raise the profile of plain language to get people more assertive about demanding language they can understand."

In 2009, the center gave the ClearMark's grand prize to HealthWise, a nonprofit providing consumer health information, for its website Conversation on Low Back Pain. ClearMark award winners from the public sector included the Health and Human Services Department and the city of Gresham, Ore. for their websites. The Washington State Labor and Industries Department took honors for its revised letter to recipients requesting public records.

The center handed the 2009 WonderMark grand prize to the I-94 form, the questionnaire international visitors fill out when entering the United States. One question asks: "Between 1933 and 1945, were [you] involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany, or its allies?"

Other WonderMark award winners from last year included Southern Pennsylvania Transit Authority's complicated emergency instructions for regional rail and the Education Department's extensive regulations on the Federal Family Education Loan Program.

This year, Cheek hopes to collect even more nominations for the two awards. She also would like to receive nominations from a greater range of sectors, particularly the financial sector. "There is a great need for clearer financial material," she said.

The Center for Plain Language will announce the winners of the ClearMark and WonderMark awards on April 28. Click here to submit nominations.

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