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|War on (buzz)words|
August 01, 2008
Bad writing isn't just poor form, it's a national security issue.
Consider the following passages. The first is an adaptation, in modern Pentagonese, of the second:
The smaller and more agile forces collected here represent a select and elite band of highly motivated warfighters. In the event of adverse battlefield consequences, senior leadership will ensure that participants are suitably recognized in their next quarterly evaluation. Regardless of the maladaptations of combatants, the current operational environment will leverage their inherent capabilities and capacities and enhance total-force interoperability. Non-participants will regret that they did not have an integrated vision of our potential for full-spectrum dominance.
Which is to say,
[KING HENRY V]
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.1
No one expects the U.S. Department of Defense and the services to write like Shakespeare. But the disparity between these examples isn't just amusing, it's harmful to our security and unfair to the American taxpayer.
Bad writing in the Defense Department undermines U.S. national security. Alive and well in the corridors of the Pentagon and throughout the services, the misuse and abuse of language obscures major defense issues, alienates non-defense experts, and suffocates ideas. Put simply, bad writing wastes time and money. The United States can ill afford such waste in peacetime, much less in war.
Compared to troop retention problems or IEDs, poor writing may seem a distressingly petty complaint. When we consider how far-reaching its effects are, however, bad writing becomes anything but petty. While serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1984, General John W. Vessey Jr. put it bluntly, "From my own experience, I can tell you, more has been screwed up on the battlefield and misunderstood in the Pentagon because of a lack of understanding of the English language than any other single factor."2
Or as Mortimer D. Goldstein, who had a 25-year career in the State Department, responded to Vessey's words, "I suspect that the problem . . . is not so much a lack of understanding of English as the failure to write it so that it can be understood."3 From 1985 to 1986, Goldstein published a series of 20 articles titled, "Disciplined Writing and Career Development" in State Magazine.4 I would bet there is no better guide to, as Goldstein called it, "writing style and technique as they affect the practical task of communication."
How does bad writing hurt U.S. national security? Why is it worth getting worked up over wordiness, passive voice, and overused jargon?
Let's start with an example of Defense Department writing. This is the official definition of "Strategic Communication" as published in the Quadrennial Defense Review Execution Roadmap:
The ability to focus USG processes and efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives through the use of coordinated information, themes, plans, programs, and actions synchronized with other elements of national power.
To be clear, my aim is not to skewer the idea, but to challenge how it is expressed. First, note that as a definition of a noun, the above is not a complete sentence, but an exceedingly long noun phrase. It contains seven verbs (focus, understand, engage, create, strengthen, preserve, advance) and two adjectives derived from verbs (coordinated and synchronized). More than a few of these words are favorites in the Pentagon, surely familiar to a DOD audience. Even so, most readers probably need three reads to begin to understand what "Strategic Communication" means. Most are probably left wondering which verbs take priority. Shall we go forth to focus, to engage, to strengthen, or to synchronize? How do "processes" differ from "efforts"? And why specify "conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives?" Is there any time when the United States does not seek such conditions?
The definition is a victim of its authors' collective thoroughness,
a common pitfall in any large bureaucracy. In their attempt to include
every angle and every aspect, to describe each possibly related
component, to leave no stone unturned, the authors garbled the real
meaning almost beyond recognition. ...
|Plain and simple|
July 01, 2008
Congress is on a crusade to clean up the language in federal documents. But gobbledygook is hard to kill.
|EIA launches plain language series to explain energy topics|
May 01, 2008
Energy in Brief, released today, is a new series from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) that explains important energy topics using plain language.
As the source of official energy statistics from the U.S. Government, EIA provides the most accurate, policy-neutral energy data and analysis available.
The new Energy in Brief series strives to make EIA information more accessible to energy novices.
“Energy education is a critical part of EIA’s mission. At a time when American consumers face many energy-related challenges, it is more important than ever to provide the public with reliable energy information in a format that is useful and accessible by the widest possible audience,” said EIA Administrator Guy Caruso.
Each Energy in Brief concisely answers a question of importance to the public. The goal is not to be exhaustive but to clearly cover the main points. The Briefs are designed to be visually-engaging web pages that are also printer-friendly.
The articles released today address the following:
The Energy in Brief series is available on EIA’s web site at: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/energy_in_brief/.
Email delivery and RSS feed options are also available to receive the latest Briefs as they are released.
|House passes bill requiring plain language in federal documents|
April 15, 2008
The House overwhelmingly approved a bill Monday that would force the government to use plain English in its public reports, letters and documents.
The bill, HR 3548, would give agencies flexibility to define “plain language” and write their own guidelines. The Securities and Exchange Commission is one agency that publishes its own Plain English Handbook.
“This week, millions of Americans are finishing a confusing and oftentimes frustrating annual ritual: filing their federal tax return,” said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, the bill’s sponsor. “The Plain Language Act requires a simple change to business-as-usual that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever … received a government document.”
A similar bill in the Senate, S 2291, passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee last week. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
Full Story: federaltimes.com/index.php?S=3479845
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