An independent establishment is an establishment which is not part of an independent establishment

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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.]

Update — it's interesting to read the "Federal Plain Language Guidelines", and other material available at plainlanguage.gov.



45 Comments

  1. Electric Dragon said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    "'independent establishment' is 'an establishment in the executive branch … which is not .. part of an independent establishment' " Perhaps if it were phrased "is not .. part of another independent establishment" it would be clearer – so the JPL is not an independent establishment because it's part of NASA.

  2. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:16 am

    I was reminded of a paper that I found on the web. It begins with a statement that still leaves me confused: "In this paper we encounter a number of examples of /strictly local martingales/, i.e. local martingales which are not martingales." Terminology can clearly be as subtle as anything in language. (I read a paper once that argued that just about any construction can be seen as compositional, but I think it used somewhat unnatural machinery to do that. That may even have been its point.)

    But the present title is not so bad to me. It says that (proper) parts of an independent establishment are not themselves considered independent establishments.

  3. Toby Dorsey said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    There are many government agencies that are nested within other agencies. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, contains a number of agencies, such as FEMA and the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Agency and so on. The definition is set up to capture only the top-level, umbrella agency (in this case, the Department of Homeland Security). For the same reason, the definition of independent establishment is set up to capture only the top-level, umbrella 'independent establishment' — by excluding an entity that is contained within an independent establishment. I agree it looks clunky.

    As for 'and other purposes,' it is indeed a tendency (but certainly not a rule) in congressional drafting to add that at the end of the title of an act. A lot of changes can be made to an act between introduction and final passage, but for parliamentary reasons it can be cumbersome to concurrently update the title of an act to keep up with the changes. So some drafters add 'and for other purposes' at the outset as a kind of fig leaf to allow for the possibility that other purposes may materialize. Maybe not the best practice. (And in the case of the Plain Writing Act, none did.)

    Hope that helps!

    [(myl) Yes, that makes sense. Confusing language in specialized areas is often a conventionalized way of dealing with a problem that is obvious to insiders. The problem for outsiders is that neither the problem nor the conventional linguistic solution is familiar.]

  4. Stu said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    I would like to note one further irony. Cass Sunstein is one of the authors of the single most incomprehensible casebook I have ever had the misfortune to come across. Granted, there are four other authors, so it's difficult to puzzle out precisely which sections Mr. Sunstein might have been responsible for, but that doesn't really matter, since the whole thing is basically unreadable. And it isn't endemic to the material, either; Erwin Chemerinsky has written a marvelous treatment of precisely the same material with very few of the same problems.

    The other illustrious authors include Geoffrey Stone (Chicago), Louis Seidman (Georgetown), Mark Tushnet (Harvard), and Pamela Karlan (Stanford).

  5. Electric Dragon said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    Not being familiar with the mathematical meaning of martingale used by Jussi Piitulainen, I looked it up. To put it in syllogistic terms:

    All martingales are local martingales.
    Some local martingales are not martingales.
    Local martingales which are not martingales are "strictly local martingales".

    The confusion (and I admit it confuses me too) comes from the fact that in normal English when we specify a noun and qualify it with an adjective, we usually expect that to be restrictive (cars and red cars), whereas here applying the adjective "local" does the opposite – "local martingales" is a proper superset of "martingales"

  6. Bill Walderman said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    "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)."

    One other choice: you can introduce short forms of reference, such as National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (hereinafter, the "Institute"); Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor (hereinafter, a "transistor"). Actually, you don't need "hereinafter" or even the quotation marks. In a statute or regulation, you can use short-form defined terms with definitions that are limited in scope to a particular provision. ("For purposes of this section, the term "Institute" shall mean the National Institute of . . . "). Using a noun instead of an acronym can sometimes be more helpful to the reader than using an acronym or repeating a long-winded official name.

  7. Ø said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 8:05 am

    /strictly local martingales/, i.e. local martingales which are not martingales

    In mathematics, if you know what the adjective "compact" means then you can predict (reasonably accurately) what "locally compact" means. The pattern is the same no matter what adjective you put in. This pattern gets extended to nouns, so that "X is a local martingale" is interpreted like "X is locally a martingale". It's a useful way of talking, but we sometimes get ourselves in trouble.

    More than once, I have known very intelligent students to be misled by "locally homeomorphic". Here's the trouble: A homeomorphism is a kind of mapping. Objects X and Y are homeomorphic if there is a homeomorphism from X to Y. A mapping is called a local homeomorphism if it is locally a homeomorphism, i.e. if little bits of it are homeomorphisms. X and Y are called locally homeomorphic if little bits of X are homeomorphic to little bits of Y. But students who have encountered the concept (and expression) "local homeomorphism" often assume that "X and Y are locally homeomorphic" means "there is a local homeomorphism from X to Y", and are outraged to find that something has been named this badly.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 8:16 am

    Since 5 U.S.C. § 105 predates the PLAIN effort, it provided a ready definition of independent establishment. Undoubtedly, a) the definition in force in 5 U.S.C. § 105 took pains to exclude subunits from the definition, for whatever undetermined purposes, without the prescience needed to anticipate PLAIN's requirements, and b) PLAIN piggybacked on the definition without critical evaluation of its ramifications.

  9. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    Ø, thanks, that was helpful.

  10. Lane said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    The "and other purposes" reminds me of a traditional bit of UN-ese: Security Council resolutions routinely include a clause "and decides to remain seized of the matter" near the end. It seems pretty unnecessary, but I suppose it prevents people from arguing that the Security Council's right to continue resolving on the issue at hand could be precluded in the future by the lack of an explicit statement of the decision to remain seized. The thing is that as pretty much everyone in the UN knows, the SC has more power than any other body in the organization and can pretty much do what it likes. So this clause strikes me as somewhere between traditional, vestigial and useless.

  11. Jeff Binder said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    Bill: I thought that's what Mark meant by "vague anaphoric references." Strictly speaking anaphora would only include cases where the part of the phrase repeated is at the beginning, but the two examples you gave are at least similar to it.

    It would seem to me that this device only works for proper names. Referring to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as "the Institute" is clear enough, at least provided that there isn't another "Institute" that we might confuse it with. Referring to MOSFETs as simply "transistors," though, is begging for confusion even if the convention is explicitly stated, since the word "transistor" normally refers to a wider range of things.

    [(myl) Yes, exactly. "The institute" won't work for NICHD in a context where (say) the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), etc., are also in the picture — as they and others of the 20 NIH "institutes" often are.]

  12. KeithB said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    Just last night I watched a special on PBS about Rachel Carson. When she was employed as a biologist by the Fish and Game Service, her boss asked her to write some sort of public report.

    She wrote the report and submitted it to him, and he said, "This just won't do…maybe you should submit it to _The Atlantic_." Which she did.

  13. Dan T. said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    One might analogize "martindale" vs. "local martindale" as similar to "celebrity" vs. "local celebrity", where somebody who's a celebrity in some local community isn't a celebrity in the outside world. A celebrity in the outside world is probably still a celebrity while visiting the local community, though this isn't absolutely certain; he/she might happen to be unknown there, making "celebrity" neither a subset or superset of "local celebrity".

  14. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    So some drafters add 'and for other purposes' at the outset

    > You can bet some kind of sh** has happened because of titles which failed to adequately cover the contents of a bill.

    It's kind of like including IE6 fixes in your HTML.

  15. KayJay said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    *disclaimer* Not a linguist, not a politician, just someone fascinated by both and trying to improve my understanding all the way around.

    Could the "other purposes" be a catch-all phrase to enable the ever-present tacking-on of totally unrelated amendments to bills so that they also pass when no one is paying attention? Who would vote down a bill on making language understandable (what a lofty goal, and admirable to boot) despite the fact that someone added last minute amendment to… outlaw rubber ducks (in the small print)? The Anti-Rubber Duckies amendment fits into "other purposes."

    Just a thought, seeing how this is the way Congress works all the time.

  16. Acilius said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    "(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"

    Aren't there words missing in there? Shouldn't it read "(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 a subordinate part thereof, or a subordinate part of an independent establishment"?

  17. Rube said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    @ Acillius — I'm not sure what "subordinate" adds in the way of clarity, and it opens a small "p" political issue of the type that pops up all the time in legislative drafting. I am pretty sure there'd be pushback if you referred to the Coast Guard, say, as being a "subordinate" part of the Department of Homeland Security. It might be true in fact, but it would have trouble flying in a document that needed to get sign-off from a wide range of parties.

  18. TonyK said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    @Rube: Acilius's comment is perhaps motivated by the simple fact that in Set Theory, every set is considered to be a subset of itself. By this logic, every establishment is a part of itself, so the condition is vacuous. In Set Theory, if you want to disallow this interpretation, you have to say 'proper subset'; Acilius has just translated this into the bureaucratese phrase 'subordinate part'.
    Makes sense to me anyway.

  19. D.O. said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    If drafters of 5 U.S.C. § 104 wanted to define independent establishment in a non-circuitous way they should have defined first plain establishment as anything that is appropriate and then add "independent establishment is an establishment which is not part of another establishment". I would bet my complete collection of U.S.C. that this kind of definitions is used in mathematics for centuries. However, what is not clear is whether this kind of definitions is more transparent for anyone who is not a math student or college professor.

  20. Bill Walderman said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    "The institute" won't work for NICHD in a context where (say) the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), etc., are also in the picture — as they and others of the 20 NIH "institutes" often are.]

    I thought vague anaphoric references meant pronouns.

    But you can usually devise short forms that are easier for the reader to process than the long forms, based on context. In the context of writing about a bunch of National Institutes, you can devise short forms such as the "Neurological/Stroke Institute," the "Deafness Institute," etc. If you're only writing about one kind of transistor, then "transistor" should work . But if other kinds of transistors are in question you can almost always find a short way to distinguish them without overtaxing the reader with superfluous verbiage.

    [(myl) But in comparison, acronyms like NASA, NIMH, NSF, etc, are crisp and accessible ways to avoid superfluous and confusing verbiage.]

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    Stu: Interesting comment about Sunstein. But what does "one of the single" mean?

  22. Bill Walderman said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    "acronyms like NASA, NIMH, NSF, etc, are crisp and accessible ways to avoid superfluous and confusing verbiage"

    Yes, in some contexts, especially if the acronyms (or, if you like, initialisms–I wasn't previously aware of the distinction, which shows how illiterate I am)–especially if the acronyms, like NASA or the IRS, are very familiar to readers. But if, say, you're writing about multiple organizations or other things with similar or complicated acronyms, it may be more helpful on the reader to use a noun that conveys the substance of each item. Sorry to belabor this minor point which is only tangentially relevant to the real topic of discussion, but I struggle on a daily basis to write about complex, technical legal matters in a way that is easy for the reader to follow, and I can't say I'm always successful.

  23. Mark Mandel said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    Bill Walderman said: But you can usually devise short forms that are easier for the reader to process than the long forms, based on context.

    Mark L replied: But in comparison, acronyms like NASA, NIMH, NSF, etc, are crisp and accessible ways to avoid superfluous and confusing verbiage.

    And these are already standard and known to most readers, even if they don't know exactly what "NASA" stands for. Why burden them with something longer that you've just invented? And in any case, familiar or not, clarity requires equating them at the first mention. You say "the National Trash and Recycling Administration (NTRA)" and that takes care of it.

  24. Mark Mandel said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

    Bill: But if, say, you're writing about multiple organizations or other things with similar or complicated acronyms, it may be more helpful on the reader to use a noun that conveys the substance of each item.

    Ah, that could make a difference. I hadn't seen your reply when I posted my previous one.

  25. Mark Mandel said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    Coby: Looks like you lost a line somewhere. What Stu wrote is:

    Cass Sunstein is one of the authors of the single most incomprehensible casebook I have ever had the misfortune to come across.

    where "single" here means "alone and unchallenged at the top of the heap" — or maybe here "… at the bottom of the pit".

  26. eye5600 said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

    "And these are already standard and known to most readers, even if they don't know exactly what "NASA" stands for. "

    I can remember a time decades ago when HUD was mentioned but not defined/explained an article in Time Magazine. As a reader, I was extremely irritated.

  27. Nicholas Waller said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    Acronyms like NASA, NATO etc look even friendlier when written like proper nouns, as the likes of Nato and Nasa tend to be in British writing.

  28. Mark F. said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    I looked at the style guide and it doesn't seem too bad. It does make the usual "avoid passive" recommendation, but I didn't click through to see whether all of their examples really were passive. But certain bits of advice like avoiding exceptions to exceptions and too much negation strike me as helpful.

  29. Alex said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    Electric Dragon,

    The "martingale vs. local martingale" problem is not specific to technical language. For example, "fool's gold" is not a type of gold, nor is a "shooting star" a type of star. Jean-Pierre Serre discusses this point in his talk "How to write mathematics badly".

    I've found that technical language is often confusing because it inherits the problems of the natural language in which is written. The writers were not trying to be especially perverse. They think in natural language and write that way. But natural language is imprecise and full of exceptions and special cases.

    Have you ever written a sentence in "plain English" that sounded perfectly natural, but then realized it didn't capture exactly what you wanted to say? So you edit the sentence, but wind up with a sentence that is precise but impenetrable. Writers often have to choose between (1) being vague or ambiguous and (2) being precise but dense. Technical writing is confusing because few writers have the skill to balance between (1) and (2).

  30. Nanani said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:55 am

    Tangential question: How do you type the §§ ?
    Do you simply copy-paste it from somewhere else, or is there a way to type it in Windows? Also, what is that § symbol called?

    I occasionally have cause to reference the U.S.C. and have never been able to find a way to type the offending symbol. Would love to stop needing to copy-paste it all the time.

    Thanx~

  31. Mark Anderson said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:22 am

    Plus ca change…

    Sir Ernest Gowers gives this example in The Complete Plain Words (I have the 3rd edn, 1986, but much of it was originally written by Gowers in 1954), and suggests how it could be improved:

    "Separate departments in the same premises are treated as separate premises for this purpose where separate branches of work which are commonly carried on as separate businesses in separate premises are carried on in separate departments in the same premises."

  32. Greg Bowen said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    @ Nanani

    In Word 2007, you can find it under 'insert' > 'symbol' > 'more symbols', on the 'special characters' tab. It looks like you can also specify a custom keyboard shortcut for it if you need to use it frequently.

  33. bbleeker said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 3:12 am

    @Nanani: the § is called a section mark, and one of the Windows Alt codes is Alt+21.

  34. Nanani said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 5:52 am

    Section mark! Thank you, bbleeker, and thank you Greg Bowen for the instructions.
    This will come in handy later.

  35. Flex said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    "acronyms like NASA, NIMH, NSF, etc, are crisp and accessible ways to avoid superfluous and confusing verbiage"

    NSF is to me both the National Sanitation Foundation International and the National Science Foundation. I drive by The National Sanitation Foundation International on a regular basis and I'm on a committee which deals with them on occasion. So, while acronyms are often crisp and accessible, they are not universally so. Which, I understand, is not what you are claiming.

    I think many acronyms also probably fall into the category of jargon.

    As an electrical engineer I typically talk about FETs, MOSFETs, ARBs, EMF, ESD, and other acronyms, truncations, or initialisms which are jargon of the field. No one in the field expects someone from outside the field to immediately understand it.

    The use of jargon greatly speeds up communication within the field but it can create confusion for those who are unfamiliar with the field. I suspect that some, or even a large part, of the ever-present SIWOTI is due to someone not understanding the differences between the language used by an author and the language they are reading. Even if both those languages fall into the general category of being English the prevalence of jargon in all professions can easily lead to a miss-understanding of the message.

    Of course, the value of this comment is probably trivial, in the mathematical sense. But I have the day off.

    FWIW:
    FET = Field Effect Transistor, an acronym.
    MOSFET = Metal-Oxide Field Effect Transistor, also an acronym
    ARB = ARBitrary waveform generator, not an acronym but a truncation.
    EMF = Electro-Magnetic Field, an initialism.
    ESD = Electro-Static Discharge, an initialism.
    SIWOTI = Someone Is Wrong On The Internet, an acronym

  36. Mark Etherton said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

    Congressional "and other purposes" seems to me to be analogous to UK practice, in which there is a ‘short title’ by which the Bill is called as it goes through Parliament, and a ‘long title’, which sets out the scope of the Bill, (and once it is passed, of the Act) and which frequently ends “and for connected purposes”. Amendments to the Bill are only in order if they are within its scope (although the long title can itself be amended to enlarge the scope), and ‘for connected purposes’ is thus a useful procedural device. Even so, long titles can be very long indeed: the Health and Social Care Bill, a controversial measure restructuring the National Health Service, is currently entitled:

    “A Bill to establish and make provision about a National Health Service Commissioning Board and commissioning consortia and to make other provision about the National Health Service in England; to make provision about public health in the United Kingdom; to make provision about regulating health and adult social care services; to make provision about public involvement in health and social care matters, scrutiny of health matters by local authorities and co-operation between local authorities and commissioners of health care services; to make provision about regulating health and social care workers; to establish and make provision about a National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; to establish and make provision about a Health and Social Care Information Centre and to make other provision about information relating to health or social care matters; to abolish certain public bodies involved in health or social care; to make other provision about health care; and for connected purposes.”

    Westminster usage is to have a semi-colon before “and for connected purposes”, which has the merit of avoiding the writing government documents for other purposes confusion. How closely the reasons behind Congressional drafting mirror the practice of Parliamentary Counsel (who draft Bills in the UK) is a question others may be able to answer.

    As for obscurity in drafting there is supposed to have been a UK Statutory Instrument (which not does not appear in http://www.legislation.gov.uk and therefore, alas, is likely to be apocryphal) which contained the sentence:

    ‘In the Nuts (Unground) (Other than Groundnuts) Order, the expression “nuts” shall have reference to such nuts, other than groundnuts, as would but for this amending Order not qualify as nuts (unground) (other than groundnuts) by reason of their being nuts (unground).’

  37. Sili said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

    Tangential question: How do you type the §§ ?

    Even more tangentially: In Danish for some reason we use § (it's on the keyboard as Shift-½ all the way to the left) to mark paragraphs. Or perhaps we just call "sections" "paragraphs".

    –o–

    There are many government agencies that are nested within other agencies.

    I feel a Zorn's Lemma coming on. Any chain of agencies with an upper bound has a maximal agency which is independent. (Does the White House count as the upped bound?)

  38. Brett said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    Flex: EMF = Electro-Magnetic Field, an initialism.

    I hope that was just a typing error. I tell my E&M students that they can safely ignore statements about electricity from anybody who thinks "emf" stands for "electromagnetic field." That piece of jargon has actually served me well on a number of occasions, as a method for distinguishing people who understand electronics from those who do not.

    It actually stands for "electromotive force."

  39. D. B. Propert said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    Although acronyms can create ambiguity, the space savings in documents is not trivial. I once had to write a contract (pursuant to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (i.e. FAR) for an aircraft to be tested and qualified under the Federal Aviation Regulation (also FAR). As any standard contract term had to be referenced to one or the other, we ended up having to spell out every instance of each, which added quite q few pages to the resulting document and in some ways made it harder to reader than a normal contract.

  40. Nicholas Waller said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 4:39 am

    §§
    I use a MacBook Pro laptop with an external monitor and Macally keyboard. I get § simply by pressing the extreme left key just below the esc button on the Macally keyboard (no shift or alt or cmd needed, and shift gives ±). The same position on the Mac gives ' (and with a shift gives ~).

    The Mac is US (with a $ sign) and the Macally keyboard British (£ and € signs). I don't think I have ever needed the § key before today.

  41. Andrew Taylor said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    I think that 5 U.S.C. § 104 is intended to say:

    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,
    (2) part of an independent establishment; or
    (3) the Government Accountability Office.

  42. Allienne Goddard said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    Brett —

    Note the capitalization. When referring to electromotive force, the acronym is "emf", while Electromagnetic Field is shortened to "EMF".

  43. John Cowan said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    In practice, no one says either "emf" or "electromotive force"; they say "voltage".

    At Yale, a final club is a club membership in which precludes membership in any other final club.

  44. Flex said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    Brett and John Cowan,

    I work in the field of EMC, electromagnetic compatibility testing. I subject airbag control modules to high intensity electromagnetic fields (up to 200 V/m) at radio and microwave frequencies (150 kHz to 2.8 GHz) to ensure your airbag doesn't go off when you use your cell-phone in the car. Not that there has ever been any incidence of that occurring, but we are the people who make certain it doesn't happen.

    We deal in EMF and we call it EMF, as in V/m.

    We are talking about technical jargon, remember?

  45. John Cowan said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    Flex, you are using what from my point of view is archaic terminology. Maxwell, WP tells me, did use the term electromotive force for electric field strength, but in modern use emf is measured in volts (joules per coulomb), not in volts per meter (newtons per coulomb). Since the term force is misleading, suggesting a measurement whose unit is newtons, emf is usually replaced by voltage, which is opaque but at least not misleading.

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