Popular Topics: Regulations
Regulations could be said to be the language of the federal government. Regulations tell Americans how to get benefits, how to meet safety standards, and how to pay their taxes. There are now over 200,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Regulations that are unclear or unreadable make work for the reader and for the agency that issues them. Many agencies issue elaborate guidance documents to help the reader understand their regulations, but ordinarily you shouldn’t need them if your regulations are clear and complete. And if they aren’t, you may get letters and phone calls from people who don’t understand them. Worse yet, the reader who doesn’t understand may comply incorrectly or simply not comply at all. Overall, writing all our regulations in a clear and easily readable style would result in a tremendous savings of time and effort for the federal government and for citizens affected by them.
Regulations don’t have to be written in “legalese.” Don’t let anyone convince you that outmoded forms of language are needed in regulations. Plain language works for regulations just as it does for other important forms of written communication. The links on this page will help you write clear, more effective regulations for your agency.
The American Bar Association speaks out
In 1998, the American Bar Association passed a resolution urging the federal government to write regulations in plain language.
General principles of plain language
The general principles of plain language apply to regulations. You’ll find them in Federal Plain Language Guidelines, and also in the earlier, shorter version, Rules for Regulation Writers, which is an online tutorial.
Help from the Federal Register
The Office of the Federal Register provides excellent guidance material for writing regulations. The Register’s strong support for plain language comes through clearly in its most recent version of the Document Drafting Handbook (DDH) available on its website. Besides this handbook, the website has several individual guides on aspects of writing user-friendly regulations. You’ll find them under Plain Language Tools on the Register's website.
In Making Regulations Readable, the Register suggests seven steps to help rule writers draft customer-oriented regulations. This tool also appears as Part II of the DDH, and is itself a model of plain language.
Drafting Legal Documents is the Register’s general style manual for clear and concise legal writing. It urges writers to use active voice, action verbs, present tense, simple words, and "must" for obligations.
The Register even shows you how to rewrite an existing rule in plain language in Rewriting a Short Rule: Step by Step.
Other references about writing regulations
Tom Murawski's Writing Readable Regulations is a great resource by a pioneering advocate of plain language. You can purchase it from the University of North Carolina Press
Bryan Garner's 2001 book, Legal Writing in Plain English: A Text with Exercises, is an excellent learning tool for plain legal writing and is very readable by non-lawyers. It clearly explains all our most important techniques. Bryan is one of our most important legal writing experts in the US today. Besides being the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, he has several important books on writing, including Modern American Usage.
Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick is a basic learning tool and reference guide for lawyers and other writers of legal documents. It’s concise and easily absorbed. It's still a best seller of the University of North Carolina Press.