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Jack Smith

Herein, hereunder and herearound, be it devoutly hoped that gobbledygook's days are numbered

May 07, 1986|JACK SMITH

You may have read in the paper the other day that the City Council has adopted a policy that calls for city ordinances and reports to be written in "plain English."

Whether this policy, easy enough to adopt, actually results in comprehensible ordinances and reports remains to be seen.

I have my doubts. There is something in the nature or temperament of bureaucrats that seems to make them distrust plain English.

This policy of noble intentions is the work of Robert W. Benson, professor of law at Loyola Law School, a tireless leader in legal language reform and founder of the annual Legal Gobbledygook Award for the worst example of legal gobbledygook passed into law in the previous year.

I wrote about Prof. Benson and his crusade in 1984 when his class gave the award to the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners for a statute, enacted into law by the Illinois State Legislature, which began:

"For any life insurance policy issued on or after Jan. 1, 1987, for which the contract premium in the first policy year exceeds that of the second year with no comparable additional benefit being provided in that first year, which policy provides an endowment benefit or a cash surrender value or a combination thereof in an amount greater than such excess premium, the reserve according to the Commissioners reserve valuation method as of any policy anniversary occurring on or before the assumed ending date, defined herein as the first policy anniversary on which the sum of any endowment benefit and any cash surrender value then available is greater than. . . ."

Have you got that? Then read on . . . and on. . . .

In its critique of the statute, Benson's class noted that the first sentence was 248 words long, the subject was buried 62 words after the start, and the verb came 48 words later.

"NAIC's poor writing," Benson said, "has produced a law that only a handful of experts can understand."

Five years ago the City Council asked Benson to prepare a plain English policy. With Assistant City Atty. George Buchanan, he worked out the proposal that the council adopted.

In his pitch to the council for the policy's adoption, Benson pointed out: "It's bad for a democracy to be mired in laws that the average citizen can't understand. The plain English policy, of course, won't guarantee that everyone will understand the laws, but it certainly will move things in that direction.

"Nearly every law school in the nation today is training the new generation of lawyers to discard the old, unintelligible legalese. The schools are showing how laws can be clear and concise and still be legally accurate. But when these new lawyers take jobs, they come under pressure to go along with the old writing habits of the legal profession. They need a signal of official support for clear writing, and plain English laws can provide that signal. . . ." Those are the first two paragraphs of Benson's brief eight-paragraph argument. Just to illustrate his point, he also gave the council an idea of how his argument might have begun if written in conventional legalese:

"A policy relative to the usage of simplified language in ordinances and reports of the City of Los Angeles is scheduled for deliberation and action by the City Council within the instant month, and the purpose of the present correspondence is to encourage favorable consideration thereof. . . ."

Benson's policy, as adopted by the City Council, is simplicity itself.

It calls for the use of familiar words, except when terms of art or technical words are required.

It calls for short sentences. In general, it says, sentences should not exceed 25 words.

It calls for the insertion of informative headings and subheadings.

It urges the avoidance of surplus words, verbose word clusters, and redundant phrases.

It urges the avoidance of jargon, such as "aforesaid, 'and/or," "hereof," and "thereof."

It recommends the use of active verbs when the context reasonably permits.

It suggests that the entire code can in time be simplified and clarified if the council, when making revisions, will insist that the city attorney write the proposed revisions in plain English, and when possible, make the entire ordinance clear and concise.

It is a dream devoutly to be wished.

But I'm wondering what success the policy will have. When the city attorney actually gets down to writing a new ordinance or a revision, won't he be tempted to slip into the comfortable old ways of gobbledygook?

Like doctors who state their diagnoses in Latin, thus keeping themselves distant and aloof from their patients, lawyers have always favored a legal language whose elitism and obscurity also set them apart and above, like primitive priests and magicians.

Benson is wise to any arguments lawyers might make against his plain English policy.

He foresees that they'll claim that only the lawyers need to understand some laws, and that some laws are just too complex to be written simply.

"My answer would be," he said in making the 1984 Gobbledygook Award, "that any lawyers who say this must be devotees of the legislative theory of the Roman Emperor Caligula. Caligula wrote his tax laws in tiny letters and posted them too high for anyone to read. So far as I am aware, our country operates, instead, on the theory of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote laws in clear words because he believed the citizens had a right to understand them. . . ."

As I say, the aforesaid notwithstanding, I doubt that the City Council will ever adopt an ordinance that is written in plain English.

It just wouldn't sound legal.

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