Replacing Government-Speak with Clear Words—U.S. Edition

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A government by the people and for the people should also be understood by the people, which is why a movement is underway to get federal employees to start communicating differently. For too long federal agencies have used jargon in written communications that makes it difficult for ordinary people to comprehend. This habit has only helped alienate citizens from their government and weaken “the effectiveness of democracy” and deny people their rights, says Annetta Cheek, chairman of the Center for Plain Language.

A few offices in Washington are dedicated to using simple phrasing and words in their communications. Citizenship and Immigration Services, within the Department of Homeland Security, is known for its easy to understand website. And strives to educate all federal workers to tone down the jargon. offers suggestions for simplifying specific words and phrases, such as replacing “prioritize” with “rank,” “effect modifications” with “make changes,” and “in the event of” with “if.” also discourages the use of words that don’t actually exist in dictionaries, such as “impactful” and “trilemma.”
If agencies don’t voluntarily go this new route, they may soon have no choice. Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) is sponsoring legislation requiring all federal offices to use plain language when communicating with people.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
Time for a Plain-Language Revolution (by Joe Davidson, Washington Post)
Replacing Government-Speak with Clear Words (by David Wallechinsky, AllGov)
Made-up Words (by Nick Wright,
Simple Words and Phrases (


Irwin Berent 11 years ago
It's just over one year since you wrote this column, and your words were prophetic. For indeed on Oct. 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010, giving all federal agencies no choice: they must write all communications with the public in plain language. It might at first seem that requiring plainness isn't a big deal. But American government has had over 200 years to refine and perfect bureau-speak, tech-speak, and euphemism, all tools designed to fool, confuse, and hide what government is really doing. It's a habit that wouldn't be broken voluntarily. And it probably won't disappear even with this law. It will still require citizens to complain loudly and clearly at every incidence of unclear writing in government. Now they can point to this Act and say that government must communicate clearly. Only then can the public begin to know what's really happening and, it is hoped, to change things that government is doing wrong and the things that government shouldn't be doing at all. Through my Honest Government blogs ( as well as my personal projects (, I'm encouraging government agencies to use editing software tools.

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