The Plain English Campaign: Waging War Against Gobbledygook

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Why are government documents and the fine print in bank agreements and credit card offers littered with undecipherable phrases like “collateral debt obligations” and “sector-specific benchmarking” and “amorphous challenges”? Perhaps because the organizations creating these ugly phrases are purposefully trying to confuse consumers and taxpayers.

Maybe they’re just bad writers—wonks who use only words and phrases that are approved at the highest levels by lawyers and CPAs. Or maybe there’s something underhanded occurring here. If a person doesn’t understand a debit card’s overdraft fee policy, or how a credit card’s interest rate changes—even though the bank issuing the card says it doesn’t change at all—the person is more likely to get hit with fees and interest penalties. Which is exactly the goal of executives overseeing these card policies (and their confusingly scripted terms).

Regardless of the extent that a conspiracy is at work here, these muddled phrases have got to go. This movement already has its own hero: Chrissie Maher, a grandmother of 11 who lives in the outskirts of Manchester, England.

As per a profile in the WSJ, Maher is the founder of the Plain English Campaign. The organization operates under the easy-to-understand, no B.S. mantra: “We oppose gobbledygook, jargon, and legalese.”

Maher is anti-jargon not simply because of the annoyance factor. When the language of corporations and governments confuses citizens, it “takes away our democratic rights,” she says. Another bit from the WSJ story, revealing that widespread confusion has even played a role in the recession:

“Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements,” says Ms. Maher, an energetic presence in a crocheted sweater and eyeglasses. “Language has been misused and has contributed to the economic disaster.”

Maher’s campaign offers suggested rewrites for U.K. tax regulations, letters mailed by banks, and all sorts of government documents. She’s waded into the muck and gone to the trouble of figuring out what dense, befuddling phrases actually mean, and then rephrased them so that they can be understood by people other than lawyers and accountants—you know, the regular people who the messages are intended to reach.

Can someone please invite this woman to the U.S.? I’m not sure who I would sic her on first: the IRS or the insurance companies?