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Remedial plain language

L.A. County's push to turn employees into better writers is a welcome step, period.

March 09, 2007

IT DOES NOT diagram sentences, rap rulers on desks or sport a beehive hairdo. But for $209,000, Los Angeles County will get the next best thing to your grade-school grammar teacher: software to help employees write more clearly.

StyleWriter, as the software is called, is an add-on to word processing programs such as Microsoft Word. It's an enterprise-wide solution for streamlining content, where the end product is improved by its interface.

Check that: The software prompts writers to get rid of jargon and to substitute active verbs for passive ones. It urges them to strive for specificity, eschew modifiers and be direct. It even offers grades for style.

Companies and governments across the U.S. -- from General Electric to the District of Columbia -- have become part of the "plain language movement," turning to consultants and software to help them communicate effectively. L.A. County started its Plain Language Initiative in 2004. County officials say that boiling down the bureaucratese in public information materials into straightforward, seventh-grade reading level English helped cut calls to its Consumer Affairs Department 30%, saving tens of thousands of dollars. It might also be helpful to hire people who can write good.

The software is sensible enough stuff, if lacking in poetry. William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White do the job a lot more elegantly in a $10 copy of "The Elements of Style." (The illustrated version is a bit more expensive, but worth it. On, $209,000 can get you about 13,000 copies.)

But even if "the little book" is long forgotten, it's always satisfying when government is more responsive to taxpayers -- and when good writing triumphs over bad.

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