Chapter 12: Darkling Plain English

We have all been charmed and gratified in recent times by what seems to be an official attempt to stamp out jargon and gobbledygook. From a President himself we have heard a call for plain English, and state legislatures here and there are drafting and passing laws requiring simplicity in the wording of contracts and regulations. We are delighted to see that lawyers and moneylenders, also landlords and insurance companies, are opposed to the process. Anything that displeases those odious enemies of clarity and good sense must be desirable, and the cause of plain English is beginning to attract not only politicians who see in it a safe way to please the public but many of those good-hearted citizens who used to be members of SANE.

Here is an example of the sort of thing that infuriates the advocates of plain English. It’s an extract from one of those handbooks put out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an outfit notorious not only for its torture of English but for the fact that many of its thousands of rules and regulations render each other what they call in Washington “inoperative.” It’s hard to decide whether the people at OSHA are simply ineffectual bumblers or supremely talented satirists boring from within. Here, for instance, is how they define an exit: “That portion of a means of egress which is separated from all other spaces of the building or structure by construction or equipment as required in this subpart to provide a protected way of travel to the exit discharge.” That’s not all. Now they elaborate on “means of egress”: “A continuous and unobstructed way of exit travel from any point in a building or structure to a public way [which] consists of three separate and distinct parts: the way of exit access, the exit, and the way of exit discharge.”

That’s certainly ugly, and it makes us wonder whether an exit has to be defined at all, and, if it does, why couldn’t it just be called a way to get out. Then we wonder why a “means of egress” has to be defined at all, and, if it does, why couldn’t it be called a way to get to the exit. If these reservations seem reasonable to you, it’s because you’re just not thinking. You are assuming that any ghastly mess of verbiage that comes from a bureaucracy needs to be simplified because it is needlessly complicated to begin with. Wrong. As it happens, that horrid prose serves its aims perfectly. Regulations of this nature have one clear purpose, and that is to answer, before the fact, any imaginable questions that might be asked in a court of law. For that purpose it’s not enough to assume that everyone knows what an exit is. Is a door an exit? Maybe, but maybe not, if a drill press just happens to be standing in front of it. Is a hole in the wall acceptable as an exit? Do you really get out of the building (let’s say it’s ready to blow up) if you go through a door and find yourself in an enclosed courtyard instead of a “public way”? You don’t have to be very clever to think of lots of other such questions, and the writer of this regulation is thinking about your questions. He has done a good job, although he has written something very ugly. But it’s only ugly; it’s not wrong, it’s not more complicated than it has to be. It doesn’t need simplification; it needs simply to be kept pretty much out of sight, lest it provide some plain English fanatics with what they think is a useful example.

There are, of course, lots of things that ought to be written in such English as the citizens may understand, but there are lots of citizens who ought to learn to read the English in which it is necessary to say some things. This is not a distinction that the plain English faddist is always able to make. For many of them, though, it doesn’t really matter.

The marvelous thing about the plain English fad, for a politician, is that there’s no way it can hurt him. If he fights for automobile safety or for gun control, he’s bound to lose some votes and some campaign contributions. On the other hand, if he comes out against automobile safety and against gun control, he’s bound to lose some votes and some campaign contributions. Politicians have to balance things like this all the time, always hoping to make a little more on the peanuts than they have to lose on the popcorn. It’s not easy, and they’re delighted, actually, whenever they can find a cause with a high yield of profit and very little overhead. Plain English is just such a cause.

True, there are a few opponents of the simplification of legal and public language, but just look at them–a pack of notorious scoundrels. You can always show a profit when you castigate lawyers, moneylenders, and landlords. Not only are these enemies of good sense unpopular, but their case against plain English is difficult to present and difficult to understand, and, coming from them, sounds suspiciously self-serving. The case for plain English, on the other hand, is so easy to state and seems so reasonable that it now ranks with those splendid self-evident truths so dear to all Americans.

How can we tell whether or not something is written in plain English? It’s simple. We have a couple of systems available that call for counting words and syllables in the average sentence and dividing something by something or maybe multiplying something by something after we have divided something by something. And there you have it–a rational, concrete index in the form of a number, a plain English score. A “good” score means, naturally, that lots of Americans can understand it, and a “bad” score means that few Americans can understand it. Theoretically it ought to be possible to write in such a way that no Americans can understand your English, or so that all Americans can understand your English. In fact, the former is common, but when we find it we rarely discover that its difficulty has anything to do with sentence length or numbers of words and syllables. The latter, however, is impossible, since there are so many Americans who can read nothing at all. Those various indexing systems are not meant to deal with the extremes. They want only to say, of this or that piece of prose, that it probably calls for an eighth-grade ability to read, or a college graduate’s ability to read, or something like that. Let’s hope that the scale is adjusted year by year, since this year’s eighth graders, like this year’s college graduates, don’t read quite as well as last year’s, although they do read a bit better than next year’s. Unless the indexers give this some thought, we’ll be faced with a continual downward revision of all those laws and contracts and regulations, because this year’s newly revised and simplified driver’s license application form that almost any high school graduate can read will be, in 1994, incomprehensible to those who hold master’s degrees in sociology or doctorates in education.

The problem has some entertaining qualities. We have found ways to produce every year more and more high school graduates who can barely read. More and more of the citizens are finding, accordingly, that more and more documents are hard to read. The automatic populists, now common among us, see an obvious solution to this problem. If the people are having trouble understanding what is written, then we must write it more simply. It’s analogous to the view that if the people haven’t got the brains to buckle their seat belts or to refrain from sticking their hands into the blades of their lawn mowers, then we must redesign the seat belts and the lawn mowers. We reveal thus that our national commitment to education is pious hypocrisy. If we really believed that the people could be taught, we would teach them the worth of buckling their seat belts and keeping their hands out of the lawn mower blades. We would even teach them to read, not just enough to puzzle out some slightly complicated prose, but to read, when necessary, the inevitably complicated expression of complicated ideas. It’s as though you went to the hospital with a broken arm and the people in the emergency room, instead of setting the thing, got busy on the telephone trying to find you some other line of work, something that requires only one arm.

Like all cockeyed social notions, the plain English movement invites us to look around and see who’s going to make a profit from it. A paranoid observer might think to detect a massive conspiracy. And here’s how it goes: First we start providing the schools with lots of taxpayers’ money to support research into quaint and curious innovations in teaching children how to read. This results in some extraordinary gimmick, and a very profitable one, not only for some professionals of education who are paid to cook it up but especially for that massive educational-industrial complex that makes and sells at high prices books and flash cards and sets of gadgets to go with every new fad. These people, of course, would like to see as many new fads as possible, because each one makes all the old stuff obsolete. What the gimmick is, is not important; for a while, and in some schools still, it was the weird notion that reading would be better taught without reference to the sounds of letters but rather through identifying whole words as symbols of something. The latest gimmick seems to be speed reading, which will make it possible, at a stiff price, to read a complete gothic romance in three minutes and forty seconds, thus ensuring a steady market for gothic romances. A well-trained keypunch operator could go through sixteen of them on her lunch hour, provided of course that she ate something like a sandwich or a slice of pizza. Speed reading does require the use of at least one hand.

Let the gimmick be whatever it is. Think of your own, if you need an example, something like printing vowels in different colors or providing new and tricky shapes for certain letters. These, of course, have been done, so you’ll have to stretch a bit; and, when you do come up with something that seems unspeakably zany, keep your mouth shut. If you mention it in public, it won’t be long before someone offers to fund it. It’s best to avoid offering the occasion for sin. But enough. Let’s say we have a gimmick.

Now we experiment, being careful to use methods and controls that would make a first-year chemistry student blush and stating the problems and the expected results (those we call “outcomes”) in the silliest possible jargon. Don’t worry, we’ll “prove” the efficacy of our gimmick (remember the new math?). As a result, or outcome, although we’d rather not use that word in the singular, more and more students in the public schools will read less and less.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that this means that our gimmick has failed. Pay attention. This means that the gimmick has succeeded. Remember, we have taken the role of dentists handing out lollipops to ensure that there will be no falling off of customers. Now that things are worse than ever, we view with alarm the “reading problem” in the schools. It’s time for a new round of grants, projects, experimental proposals, expensive consultants, packets of materials, instruction booklets, sets of visual aids, more teachers, carpeted classrooms, air conditioning, just about anything you can imagine. It’s all good for the education business, and if it seems to have been exaggerated, just you go footing around yourself and find anybody anywhere who proposes that we can teach reading (or anything else) better by spending less money.

If there were a conspiracy that worked all these wonders, you can imagine the joy of the conspirators in the windfall that the plain English agitation has brought them. In one way it’s a happy result of that conspiracy, and perhaps, therefore, not unexpected. Naturally, as fewer and fewer literate people move out of the schools and start signing leases and borrowing money for Corvettes and stereo systems, it more and more appears that the documents put before them are just too hard. They’re always too hard for somebody; it’s just that now we have more and more of those somebodies, and the problem grows more visible. It becomes a cause; it suddenly seems that we can make a case for rudimentary English as one of an American’s inalienable rights. You deprive him of that–it’s practically like forbidding the sale of classic comics or those benoveled versions of movies. It’s a splendid cause for politicians and educationists, especially, because anyone who opposes it must do so either out of some devious special interest by which he lives or out of a positively un-American elitism intended to maintain a rigid class structure and deprive the ignorant of access to professorships in philosophy and literature. Both politicians and educationists will profit from the cause, the politicians at once, in good will and support from the public, and the educationists somewhat later, in more grants, and because they will sooner or later be the very ones called on to do the necessary simplifying.

The bureaucrats who have produced most of our dismal official English will, at first, be instructed to fix it. They will try, but nihil ex nihilo. That English is the mess it is because they did it in the first place and they’ll never be able to fix it. They write that kind of stuff because that is the kind of stuff that they write. Ultimately, in desperation, they will call on those people who say they know about these things–the professionals of reading and writing. There will be lucrative jobs and consultancies available in every branch and department of government for remedial-reading teachers. The foxes will be made the guardians of the hen house.

Here is an example of what the bureaucrats will do when left to their own devices. The following passage is from a document called “Draft Regulations to Implement the National Environmental Policy Act.” It has been rewritten into what they call plain English, and a covering letter from the chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality says that it “represents an extraordinary improvement over the existing guidelines”:

The agency need make the finding of no significant impact available for public review for thirty days before the agency makes its final determination whether to prepare an environmental impact statement and before the action may begin only in one of the following limited circumstances: . . .

Remember, this has been simplified; the original is hard to imagine. There are no difficult words in this passage–even the five syllables of “determination” do not make it a difficult word, whatever they might do to the passage’s score. What these people mean by “determination” might be better served by “judgment” or even “decision,” but still, most readers will not be baffled by “determination.” In fact, there’s nothing at all–neither word nor thought–nothing at all difficult for any moderately educated reader in that passage. Why then is it so hard to understand? Why do you have to read it over a couple of times, should you really care to know what it means? Does this passage, already simplified from God knows what, need further simplification? No. All it needs is a little attention to the stuff that used to be taught to sixth-grade students back in the days when sixth-grade students actually wrote compositions.

People who have learned even a little about how English works have all heard about modifiers. They know that a modifier is something that tells us something about something, and that there are many kinds of modifiers, some with tricky names. The way we teach things like this, as though they were subject to arbitrary rules like the rules of basketball, is so stupid and tedious that most people block out modifiers as soon as possible. The English system of modification, however, does not exist in a set of paltry rules that do what they can, and fail, to describe some very elaborate operations not simply of the language but of the mind. To say that an adjective modifies a noun is worth nothing unless we see that sticking adjectives on nouns is the outward equivalent of some mysterious inward process that goes on in the mind. It’s not entirely absurd to think that somewhere in the past of mankind someone, for the first time, did in his mind the equivalent of putting an adjective to a noun, and saw, not only a relationship, but this special relationship between two things of different kinds. That moment was more important to our history than the flight of the Wright brothers. In sum, all the seemingly complicated kinds of modification in English are just ways of thinking and seeing how things go with each other or reflect each other. Modifiers in our language are not aids to understanding relationships; they are the ways to understand relationships. A mistake in this matter either comes from or causes a clouded mind. Usually it’s both.

This passage clouds our minds not because what it means to say is difficult, not because the matter is too technical for most of us, but for a very simple reason. In effect, it says that the agency need do something only under certain circumstances. That’s a clear thought. They need do A only when B. The nature of the relationship between A and B is tucked into the words “need… only.” In the passage, thirty-four words intervene between “need” and “only,” so that by the time we see “only” we have forgotten to expect any further modification of “need.” It’s like finding one more step when you thought you had reached the landing. Between those two words, furthermore, we may have been a bit bewildered by something that sounds like a modification but isn’t: “impact available for public review.” It takes a moment to look back and see that “available for public review” is actually supposed to go with “finding.” When we add to those two failures–failures of the writing to match the modification systems of the mind–the tedious parade of words and clauses not yet related to any idea that we can identify, the passage becomes what it is, awkward, puzzling, and exasperating. It requires of us more attention and backtracking than its ideas are worth.

This passage does not need simplification or even a change in its choice of words. It needs merely to have been written by someone with elementary skills in finding the right thing to do on the page to call forth certain things in the mind. The idea is not complicated; the prose, in fact, is not complicated–it’s just bad. Nevertheless, it could be simplified even using that vocabulary. Here’s how it might go:

In some cases, a finding of no significant impact does have to be made available for public review. Public review means that you have to give the public thirty days to look it over before you can even decide whether to write an environmental impact statement, and certainly before any action is taken. Here are the cases in which you do have to provide the public review:

There. All we need now is to draw little pictures.

The people who write like this write like this simply because they are the people who write like this. Even when you can convince them that there is something wrong with what they have written, you cannot make them into people who wouldn’t write like this. If you send them to go and fix it, you’ll get what you deserve–it’s like hoping the termites will build you a new house out of the glop they have made of your old one.

So the bureaucrats will need help, and lo, help is at hand. The educational establishment that has provided the problem will come forward to be paid for the solution. Thus firefighters sometimes set fires so that they can try out the new pumper. Hosts of advisers and consultants will be added to bureaucracies of all kinds. New courses of study will appear in the schools to prepare people for such lucrative and respectable labors. New courses of study will appear in the teacher-training academies to prepare the teachers for the teaching of new courses of study that will prepare the advisers and consultants. New journals of the new study will blossom; new workshops and conferences will convene from Tacoma to Key West; new federal grants will support studies that will find new findings. If you had any sense at all, you’d buy some stock right now.

There is, of course, an alternative to the plain English fad, but it’s almost too dangerous to discuss in public. We could simply decide to educate all Americans to such a degree that they could read and understand even the OSHA definition of an exit. We could even educate them well enough so that they could understand why OSHA has to say things like that and why it doesn’t matter much. We could have the schools devote lots of time, especially in the early grades, to spelling and vocabulary and even writing so that the next generation will grow up able to grasp relative clauses and complex sentences at sight and understand at once the meaning of “reciprocal” and “indemnify” and even “mitigate.” This sounds so easy and so right that there must be a catch, and indeed there is. When we consider the inevitable consequences of such a policy, we can see that it is probably too dangerous to contemplate.

Just think what happens in the mind of the person who knows the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Anyone who understands that distinction is on the brink of seeing the difference between simple fact and elaborative detail and may well begin to make judgments about the logic of such relationships. He may start bothering his head about the difference between things essential and things accidental, a disorder that often leads to the discovery of tautologies. Furthermore, anyone who sees the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses is likely to understand why modifiers should be close to the things they modify and thus begin to develop a sense of the way in which ideas grow from one another. From that, it’s not a long way to detecting non sequiturs and unstated premises and even false analogies.

Unfortunately, we just don’t know how to teach skillful reading and writing without developing many undesirable and socially destructive side effects. Should we raise up a generation of literate Americans, very little of the America that we know would survive. We depend on a steady background level of ignorance and stupidity. A skillful reader, for instance, cannot be depended upon to buy this after-shave rather than some other because he is always weighing and considering statements that just weren’t meant to be weighed and considered. He may capriciously and irresponsibly switch not only from one after-shave to another but even from one hot comb to another. Our industries depend on what we call “brand loyalty,” and thoughtful readers will all be brand traitors. They may, even probably will, go the next step and become brand nihilists who decide not to buy any aftershave or hot comb at all. It may even occur to them that the arguments for the ownership of trash compactors and toaster ovens are specious, and then they won’t buy any trash compactors or toaster ovens. Economic chaos will follow.

The next thing you know they’ll start listening very carefully to the words and sentences of the politicians, and they’ll decide that there isn’t one of them worth voting for anywhere on the ballot. There’s no knowing where this will end. The day will come when a President is elected only because those few feebleminded citizens who still vote just happened to bump up against his lever more often than they bumped up against the other guy’s lever. A President, of course, doesn’t care how he gets elected, but he might lose clout among world leaders when they remind him that he owes his high office to the random twitchings of thirty-seven imbeciles. That will be the end of network election coverage as we know it.

Chapter 13: Hydra