The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ask PLAIN for plainspeak tips

Washington, Nov 22 (Reuters): In their dark suits and sensible shoes, they looked like typical government bureaucrats, but something sounded different when they started to speak: “I never liked footnotes.”

“A student classroom module! It’s a desk. It’s always been a desk.”

“Have you ever noticed those food ingredient labels that are written for scientists and not consumers' Albumen instead of egg white protein! Gluten instead of wheat protein! And how about miso' Do you know what that is' I didn’t. I had to look it up.”

The speakers, all current or former US officials, are members of a quietly burgeoning movement to push for plain language in government documents, and it took on the tenor of a quixotic crusade at an interagency forum held yesterday.

“We’re going to keep on going and we’ll never give up!” Pat Boyd of the Federal Aviation Administration told a politely applauding audience of about 200 in the overheated lobby of the health and human services department.

“It just gets my juices flowing, and I’m wondering if any of you are feeling pretty good about plain English right now' Do you think we can succeed' Can we do better'” Smith asked the crowd, resulting in a deafening silence. “There! One person thinks we can!”

Smith, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, urged others rallying to the plain language cause to “listen to what people say about their fears,” notably the fear that what they write is too complex to be made comprehensibly simple.

The plain-language people hate acronyms, but they have one of their own: PLAIN, for Plain Language for An Informed Nation. Their struggle appears to be an occasionally lonely one. PLAIN’s director, Annetta Cheek, stayed away from the forum. The group’s top-ranked Bush administration booster, health and human services secretary Tommy Thompson, sent a video.

But there were posters, websites, bookmarks, even a refrigerator magnet pushing the message of clear writing.

“FDA Plain Language: It's the Write Idea” was the fridge magnet’s motto. “Clear and to the Point” was on the National Institutes of Health bookmark.

There were before-and-after examples, but sometimes the improvement was difficult to discern, as in one Defence Intelligence Agency review sheet: “NO: The new initiative is focused on maximising standardisation and interoperability.

“YES: The new initiative maximises standardisation and interoperability.”

The US plain language movement dates back to the 1980s, but a global effort to make government writing more clear began in the 1970s in Britain, according to Joanne Locke of the food and drug administration. There are active plain language groups in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, Britain, France, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand, Locke said. The US website is

Ann Gelineau, the plain-language person at the Internal Revenue Service, got a lot of sympathetic nods when she talked about her agency’s particular problems: “People don’t even want to open our envelopes, let alone read what’s inside.”

Largest captive snake dead

Samantha the python, believed to be the world's largest snake in captivity, has died of old age in the Bronx Zoo, officials said today.

Scientists at the New York zoo were unable to say exactly how old Samantha was when she died yesterday because she was brought to the zoo in 1993 from Borneo when she was already 6.4 metres long and weighed 80 kg.

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