Consider the woman who reportedly signed a convoluted hospital consent form but didn't understand until after her surgery that she had agreed to have a hysterectomy.
Or the companies who assign you liability for using their software, and bury it under mountains of legalese that only a lawyer can figure out.
These are just two of the examples Annetta Cheek of the Center for Plain Language marshals to push the case for writing clearly. A retired federal employee, she is one of a cohort of language lovers who have fought a decades-long battle for straightforward communication in government and private industry.
Their efforts will receive a boost in October when the federal Plain Writing Act takes full effect. Signed into law last year by President Obama, the act requires agencies to write understandably in documents for the public.
(Federal workers will be delighted to learn that "the government will still be allowed to write nonsensically to itself," according to the AP.)
'A civil right'
Plain language advocates describe their movement in civil rights terms that might sound lofty until you consider the mischief that can hide in the highfalutin terminology of bureaucratic, corporate and hospital fine print.
"The public is supposed to be involved with the government," says Cheek. "If the public doesn't understand what the government is telling it, it's not much of a democracy. So we believe that plain language is a civil right."
The medical industry has notably embraced plain language as a way of informing patients more effectively, she adds.
Cheek helped put together a memo on plain language for President Bill Clinton, and she worked trying to spread plain language through then Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review, offering No-Gobbledygook Awards to spur compliance. Clarity, she says, something that benefits both the writer and the reader.
"There's lots of data demonstrating that you can save time and money if you communicate clearly," she says. "It's better customer service. People think you're smarter. People like you better."
Besides, plainspokenness suits a free people, advocates say. Amy Bunk, director of legal affairs and policy for the office of the Federal Register, says clear communication is part of an effort by the Obama administration to create transparency and open government. Such writing helps people understand what is required of them, says Bunk, who co-chairs the federal Plain Language Action and Information Network.
"Plain writing is not dumbing down your documents," Bunk says. "It's writing them for your audience, whether that audience is attorneys or engineers or doctors or patients or high school or college students."
Saving time and money in the long run
Of course it takes more time, effort and skill to write well than badly. But sometimes the benefits of all that labor are overlooked. Well-written instructions, for example, mean fewer calls from readers who are baffled about what they are supposed to do-and less hand-holding of customers who can't make sense of your tortured phrases.
"It's not always easy," Bunk says. "You might spend more time up front working on your document. But that time that you spend you save later, because your document is clear, so you're not going to have to answer a bunch of questions because your language was convoluted."
Cheek's Center for Plain Language is trying to boost clear writing inside government and out by giving annual communications awards. The ClearMark prizes recognize the best in plain language, and the WonderMark designation cites those who have left their audience scratching their heads in bewilderment.
This year the ClearMark award winners included the IRS, the website Texas.gov, and Aetna for its benefits advisor.
"It's disappointing that there aren't many nominations in the finance area," Cheek says. "You would think that the finance industry would be anxious to communicate clearly, but we aren't seeing any evidence of that."
The interest in plain language is growing internationally, Cheek says. She credits South Africa, for example, with writing a plain language constitution. The movement is especially popular in Australia, Finland, Sweden and Portugal. Advocates in Europe videotaped a gospel-style video promoting the cause.
Some companies use obfuscation to keep customers in the dark, because people would be horrified they understood what they are agreeing to when they sign a form or check a box online. One British company with a sense of humor offered customers £5 if they said no to its agreement, Cheek says. Almost no one took the company up on it.
Perhaps we can concur that you shouldn't sign any contract you don't understand. Still, people do that all the time—just as they struggle to figure out instructions or Web information about bills or taxes. Plain language advocates would like government and the private sector take some responsibility in helping everyone understand.
"If you don't understand what you're signing, and you're embarrassed to ask about it, bad things can happen to you," Cheek says. "We think part of the reason for the financial crisis was that people didn't really understand what that mortgage was all about."
Want to see how the feds are helping employees write more clearly? Check out these tips from the "Guidelines for Creating Plain Language Materials."