Writing in Plain Language: Are we winning the war on gobbledygook?


Many Americans, puzzled and frustrated by incomprehensible communications from their government, suspect that the feds invented gobbledygook—and they’re right. The word “gobbledygook” was first used in the 1930’s by Maury Maverick, a two-term congressman. He coined the term to describe the confusing bureaucratic language he heard in the House of Representatives, which reminded him of the gobbling of wild turkeys back home in Texas.

About the Plain Writing Act

Besides confusing and frustrating the public, use of gobbledygook by government agencies also causes massive inefficiencies and drives up operating costs. The U.S. government formally declared war on gobbledygook on October 13, 2010, when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law. It requires all government agencies to use clear, easily understood language in their written communications with the public. We’re nearly halfway through 2012, and last month the agencies published their annual reports on implementation of the Act. This is a good time to check in and see how well the Act is working.

Is the Act working? Not very well

A year and a half into the government’s war on gobbledygook, it’s hard not to conclude that the gobbledygook is winning. When the Plain Writing Act was passed, at Information Mapping we predicted that it wasn’t going to solve the gobbledygook problem. In our Writing in Plain Language webinar I told our audience that we knew from experience that giving employees remedial training in grammar and telling them to use shorter sentences and the active voice wasn’t going to be enough.


This notice, which I received recently from the Department of Education, reminded me of my prediction. Even among other confusing communications, this densely packed, monolithic document is a real standout. It contains a description of the department’s policy on sharing customers’ personal information with third parties. It may as well have been created specifically to discourage anyone who might want to understand the policy. Grammar and sentence structure become practically irrelevant when information is presented to the reader in such a daunting wall of words. It would be hard to find a better illustration of why remedial training in “better writing” isn’t sufficient to win the war on gobbledygook.

Note: If you’re a Mapper, you’re probably thinking it would also be hard to find a better illustration of why we need the Chunking principle.

Why is communicating in plain language so difficult?

There are many reasons why the government is experiencing challenges in its effort to implement the Plain Writing Act. And what’s happening to the feds is relevant for organizations of all kinds. In future blog entries we’ll discuss these challenges, and look at why a simple thing like communicating in plain language can seem to be so difficult. We’ll also share ideas and suggestions you can use to help your organization win its war on gobbledygook.

What are the most confusing, frustrating documents you’ve received? Share them with us, and we’ll choose some to feature here and show you ways in which they can be improved.

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Tuesday, 14 July 2020

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