Cover Story: Uncle Sam - Use plain English

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Have you ever tried to read - really read an IRS form, mortgage papers or a student loan application?  To many people it's just a bunch of government language and legalese.

Like this quote from a common IRS website:  "Applying for enrollment is voluntary, however, providing the information requested on this form is a requirement to obtain the benefit of enrollment."

Most people have no idea what that means.  Most people never know what they're actually signing.

And that's a problem.

Now, finally a big push to put all that paperwork into plain language.  But it's not a dumbing down.  Many say it's a smart move by the federal government.

Signs are in plain English.  They have to be otherwise there'd be chaos on the streets.

How come we can't have plain language in the tax returns and applications and forms we have to fill out?

It's a universal feeling.

"They use the language that isn't American language it seems. They just use a lot of legal terms instead of the plain English for people," says Lori DeMattia.

"I don't know what grade level they make them for.. obviously it's beyond me. It's very difficult to figure out," says Charles Rheddick.

English Professor Deborah Bosley of UNC Charlotte believes it shouldn't be that way.

"I think we have a civil right as citizens to understand the information provided to us by our government," she says.

Congress has passed and the president is expected to sign soon  The Plain Writing Act of 2010.

It requires Uncle Sam start churning out public documents - tax returns, college aid applications, VA forms - written in ordinary, simple English.

"The problem is rampant.  Information has been made so complex that only experts and even they can't always understand federal information," says Dr. Bosley.

For example an AARP survey found more than half of seniors didn't take advantage of benefits and services that they deserved because they couldn't understand the information that was provided to them.

"It's critical for all of us."  Dr. Bosley is an English professor and a member of the board of the Center for Plain Language, a non-profit citizens' advocacy group in Washington.

She showed us examples of how something as complicated as a proxy statement - through plain language and using graphs - can be made easier to understand.

The government and companies can save money embracing plain English, she says.

Think about how many fewer calls they'd have to take or how many fewer mistakes there might be when the information people read they understand.

And there's more.  "The ability for people to understand information increases trust. Trust increases customer loyalty. And customer loyalty increases profits," says Bosley.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill.  The Office of Management and Budget will give guidance to federal agencies and report to Congress on compliance.

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