Are you a skilled reader? Do you pride yourself on possessing a knack for making sense of challenging prose?
Even if you consider yourself a proficient interpreter of text, there is one genre of literature that may still cause you to tremble. Government documents.
Even the most experienced lexical navigators find it challenging to traverse governmental communications. This despite the fact that in 2010 the United States actually passed the Plain Writing Act.
And I’m not even referring to legislation—where seeking sanity and clarity is virtually hopeless. And, it doesn’t matter how simple the source message is. Government scribes are capable of making a document about how to obtain a building permit read like a manual for constructing an orbital weapons platform.
I am not sure whether or not the United States is typical of other nations when it comes to this literary tradition. However, I suspect every nation, aside perhaps from those with populations under 10,000, is plagued by convoluted governmental documents. (There are thirteen such, potentially exempt, communities.*)
A prime example of institutional gobbledygook comes from this question, posed to the Chicago Manual of Style:
Q. Can you please help settle a disagreement? In the following sentence, should “instead of” be replaced with “rather than”? Overpayments occurred because facility purchased care staff processed payments using the local VA Fee schedule instead of the technical component of RBRVS.
A. Let me get this straight: in that nearly unreadable sentence (“because facility purchased care staff processed payments”?), the disagreement centers on whether to use “instead of” or “rather than”? (Oh, wait—I see from your e-mail address that this is a government office.) Replace the phrase if you are certain that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning, and (2) the current wording does not express the meaning intended. If you cannot reach agreement on these points, you might have to fund a study.
C.S. Lewis offered much sage advice about writing. Sadly, nearly every principle he proposed is utterly alien to governmental documents. His 1956 advice (to a child) should be the required background and screen saver for all government computers:
“Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”
It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for civil servants who write official documents. After all, I edited Air Force Recurring Periodical 52-1 for three years. But I sometimes wonder whether there might be an eccentric psychological disorder that afflicts many government-funded writers . . .
So, it appears, I have made an unintentional confession. The regular readers of Mere Inkling may now know the source of some of the peculiar aspects of these columns.
I have asked my children to have me institutionalized if I ever use the phrase “care staff processed payments.” Short of that, however, these brief conversations are likely to continue for many years to come.
* The following nations and “dependent territories” boast populations under ten thousand, in ascending order:
Svalbard and Jan Mayen
Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Nauru barely misses the list due to an excess of eighty-four citizens, according to their 2011 census.