Matt Negrin at Politico is teasing Cass Sunstein over his 4/13/2011 memo "Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010" ("Deciphering 'Plain Language' Edict", 4/19/2011):
The White House has a new mission for agencies: Ditch the jargon, and speak “plainly” to the public.
But don’t look to the White House to lead by example.
Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is calling on federal workers to stop using “confusing, technical, and acronym-filled language.” To help them out, he’s issued “final guidance” on how to talk straight and not garbled – in convenient PDF form.
The “official interagency working group” created for this mandate is the Plain Language Action and Information Network. That’s right, “PLAIN.” An acronym.
The PLAIN business didn't bother me, despite the implicit irony of creating an acronym for the task force charged with reducing the use of acronyms. Acronyms in general strike me as a good thing, or at least as a better thing than any of the alternatives, and therefore I don't believe that reducing or eliminating them would actually improve the clarity of bureaucratic or technical writing.
Both in bureaucracy and in technology, there are lots of precisely-defined entities and concepts for which there are no single English words ("National Institute of Child Health and Human Development"; "Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor"; and so on). You can't have well-run organizations, or clear scientific and technical communication, without tens or hundreds of thousands of named entities of this sort. And when you need to write about them, you have three choices: you can clog up your prose with many repetitions of the long-winded official names; you can use vague anaphoric references; or you can use acronyms (NICHD or MOSFET, in the cited cases).
Using acronyms is by far the best of these three choices, as long as the meaning of the acronym is plain to your audience, or is explained at the start of the passage where it's used.
Maybe Congress and the White House agree with me on this. As far as I can tell, the word acronym is not found either in Sunstein's "Final Guidance" memo or in Public Law 111-274 — the quoted phrase “confusing, technical, and acronym-filled language” comes from a post by Sunstein on The White House Blog, "Putting it Plainly", 4/19/2011.
However, one of Matt Negrin's complaints struck a chord with me, though perhaps not for the reason Matt intended:
How do you know if your agency will be subject to the new layman’s rules? Sunstein explains: “The Act and this guidance apply to all ‘executive agencies’ as defined under 5 U.S.C. § 105.”
What’s that thing? See footnote No. 2: “Section 105 defines ‘executive agency’ as an ‘Executive department, a Government corporation, and an independent establishment.’ The definitions for ‘executive department,’ ‘government corporation’ and ‘independent establishment’ are found in 5 U.S.C. §§ 101, 103, and 104.”
Hope you have your U.S.C. §§ handy.
It's not hard these days to find the relevant sections of the "United States Code" (another acronym!) — web search turns up 5 U.S.C. §§ 101-105 easily enough. But understanding them is another matter.
My own pet peeve about the language of laws and regulations is carelessness about the scope and interpretation of conjunctions. Matt quotes footnote No. 2 of Prof. Sunstein's memo
Section 105 defines “executive agency” as an “Executive department, a Government corporation, and an independent establishment.”
And indeed it does. 5 U.S.C. § 105 reads in its entirety:
For the purpose of this title, "Executive agency" means an Executive department, a Government corporation, and an independent establishment.
This seems to say that an organization must be all three of those things at once in order to quality as an "executive agency". But I'm sure that this is wrong — the context and the logic of the situation strongly suggest that the intent is disjunctive, what any ordinary person would mean by saying that "Q is X, Y, or Z", not "Q is X, Y, and Z". In my opinion, this usage is manifestly unclear and confusing. But the problem is not "technical and acronym-filled language", the problem is misuse (or maybe this is lawyerly use?) of the common, plain, and ordinary word and.
Misconjunction is not the only confusing use of plain language in this passage. 5 U.S.C. § 104 says that
For the purpose of this title, "independent establishment" means -
(1) an establishment in the executive branch (other than the United States Postal Service or the Postal Regulatory Commission) which is not an Executive department, military department, Government corporation, or part thereof, or part of an independent establishment; and
(2) the Government Accountability Office.
Stripping away some of the underbrush (and ignoring the ambiguous scope of "or part thereof"), we learn that an "independent establishment" is "an establishment in the executive branch … which is not .. part of an independent establishment". I'm sure that this is an important stipulation, but to a lay reader, it seems either self-contradictory (if an establishment is considered to be part of itself) or superfluous (if an establishment is not part of itself). I'm left wondering what legal technicality this clause might be intended to introduce or avoid. And again, the source of my confusion is a simple construction using plain and simple words.
I'll close with another case of ambiguous coordination, from the opening of the Plain Writing Act of 2010:
When I first read this noun phrase, I thought the Act was establishing that Government documents should be written clearly and for other purposes. This seems to be true. We certainly don't want to encourage federal employees to produce documents for no reason other than to display their pellucid prose style. But in fact, I said to myself, this is so obviously true that the phrase can't be meant to mean that.
So I backed up and tried out the hypothesis that we're meant to conclude that in addition to the goal of enhancing citizen access through clearly-written documents, the Act has some other purposes as well. This seems more plausible, though somewhat weasel-worded. But after some preliminary definitions in Section 1, the law's "SEC. 2. PURPOSE." reads forthrightly, in its entirety:
The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.
Those "other purposes" have disappeared from the section on "PURPOSE". Why were they in the preamble? No doubt some readers can enlighten us. Perhaps this is meant to protect the law against being thwarted by too-narrow construal of its purposes. Perhaps it's just a tradition of congressional drafting. In any case, it's puzzling to the lay reader, and not because of jargon or acronyms or a series of indirect references to clauses referencing other clauses.
[Anti-pedantry precaution: I do know that technically the term acronym should be reserved for initial-letter abbreviations that are pronounced as words, like NATO, while those that are pronounced as series of letter-names, like I B M, are initialisms. But this distinction is not observed in general usage, and is not relevant to the current discussion.]