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Fed Plain Language Guidelines

Fed Plain Language Guidelines

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Published by online4428
Obama signed the Plain Writing Act last fall after decades of effort by a cadre of passionate grammarians in the civil service to jettison the jargon. This PDF shows the new guidelines which take effect Oct. 2011.
Obama signed the Plain Writing Act last fall after decades of effort by a cadre of passionate grammarians in the civil service to jettison the jargon. This PDF shows the new guidelines which take effect Oct. 2011.

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Published by: online4428 on May 19, 2011
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08/05/2013

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We’re accustomed to thinking and speaking positively. When we write in the negative,
we place another stumbling block in audience’s way and make it more difficult for them
to understand us. When you’re going to meet a friend at the airport, do you say, “If you
fail to arrive by 5:00, I cannot pick you up,” or do you say, “You have to arrive by 5:00 if
you want me to pick you up”?

When you write a sentence containing two negatives, they cancel each other out. Your
sentence sounds negative, but is actually positive. As Rudolph Flesch (1979) says, these
sentences require “a mental switch from no to yes.”

Don’t say

Say

No approval of any noise compatibility
program, or any portion of a program,
may be implied in the absence of the

agency’s express approval.

You must get the agency’s express

approval for any noise compatibility
program or any portion of a program.

Here are some expressions that signal double negatives.

Change the double negative

To a positive

no fewer than <

at least

has not yet attained

is under

may not < until

may only < when

is not < unless

is < only if

Many ordinary words have a negative meaning, such as unless, fail to, notwithstanding,
except, other than, unlawful (un-
words), disallowed (dis- words), terminate, void, insufficient,
and so on. Watch out for them when they appear after not. Find a positive word to
express your meaning.

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

55

Don’t say

Say

An application for a grant does not

become void unless the applicant’s

failure to provide requested
information is unreasonable under
the circumstances.

An application for a grant remains active if
the applicant provides the information we
request within a reasonable time.

Exceptions to exceptions

An exception that contains an exception is just another form of a double negative. That
makes it even harder for the user to puzzle out. Rewrite the sentence to emphasize the
positive.

Don’t say

Say

Applicants may be granted a permit to
prospect for geothermal resources on any
federal lands except lands in the National
Park System, unless the applicant holds
valid existing rights to the geothermal
resources on the National Park System
lands listed in the application.

You may be granted a permit to
prospect for geothermal resources
on any federal lands. This includes
lands in the National Park System
only if you hold valid existing rights
to the park lands listed in your
application.

Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P. Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4th
edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 178-180.
Flesch, Rudolf, How to Write in Plain English, A Book for Lawyers and Consumers, 1979, Harper and
Rowe, New York, p. 95.
Garner, Bryan A., Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Court Rules, 1996, Administrative Office of the
US Courts, Washington, DC, pp. 30-31.
Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5th edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham,
NC, pp. 75-76.

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, December 2010

56

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