The Ruling on the Language of Laws
Photo credit: gwilmore
If you’re baffled by the jargon from the 2,300-page Dodd-Frank financial law or the Medicaid and Medicare reforms, don’t worry … so are federal judges. A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed how legal authorities across the country are lashing out against poorly written, “tortuous” legal texts. From sentences that take two paragraphs to reach the first period … to the overuse of footnotes … to content that requires a thesaurus word hunt, the judges criticize the incoherency of these documents.
Some legal experts say that we live in a complex world and this is just par for the course. I agree, but there’s a difference between tackling difficult subject matter and abusing words to escape being understood.
Author William Zinsser of the book On Writing Well said that “clutter is the disease of American writing” and verbal camouflage is a national epidemic. Lawmakers and lobbyists should really read his stuff.
As public relations professionals, we strive for clarity in language to help clients benefit from clear messaging. But I don’t live in a bubble. I know that language is abused by many people (including some people in the PR industry).
One of my favorite quotes about language is by author and research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business Michael Schrage:
“Let’s never ever forget that language has evolved as much as a medium for ambiguity and misdirection as a vehicle for clarity and explicitness.”
I applaud these judges for standing up for our laws and our language. What’s your ruling?
Doreen Overstreet does not like to read the tax code and commends those who try.