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  • John Stokes 9:15 pm on January 8, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: E.B. White, , , , quote, simplicity, taxes, White   

    Advice from E.B. White (especially good for aspiring lawyers…) 

    “Some day I mean to have a fireside chat with my government, that we may come to know each other a little better, for it is by a better understanding of the other’s traits that a government and its citizens must fulfill their mutual destinies. In my chat I want particularly to take up the first sentence under Section G of Form 1040, which is called ‘Items exempt from tax’ and which starts this way:

     ‘The following items are partially exempt from tax: (a) Amounts received (other than amounts paid by reason of the death of the insured and interest payments on such amounts and other than amounts received as annuities) under a life insurance or endowment contract, but if such amounts (when added to amounts received before the taxable year under such contract) exceed the aggregate premiums or consideration paid (whether or not paid during the taxable year) then the excess shall be included in gross income. . . .’

    I want to ask my government what it thinks would become of me and my family if I were to write like that. Three sets of parentheses in one sentence! I’d be on relief inside of a month.

    That sentence, above, was obviously written by a lawyer in one of his flights of rhetorical secrecy. There isn’t any thought or idea that can’t be expressed in a fairly simple declarative sentence, or in a series of fairly simple declarative sentences. The contents of Section G of Form 1040, I am perfectly sure, could be stated so that the average person could grasp it without suffering dizzy spells. I could state it plainly myself if I could get some lawyer to disentangle it for me first. I’ll make my government a proposition: for a five-dollar bill (and costs), I will state it plainly.”

    -E.B. White. “Fro-Joy.” One Man’s Meat.

  • The Diacritics 3:53 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: clarity, communication, federal government, hippocrates, plain language, simplicity   

    The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.

    Hippocrates (Source: PlainLanguage.gov [“Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public”])
    • Alon 5:31 am on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Funny. For me, ‘clearness’ is utterly unfamiliar in this sense; in my idiolect, it’s reserved for the physical senses of ‘clear’ (≃’transparency’), while the metaphorical ones use ‘clarity’.

      A quick search on COCA does not fully support my intuition, but shows that ‘clarity’ is two orders of magnitude more frequent, which makes the quote (as translated) very much a fumblerule.

      In a more serious vein: the assertion is, as far as I can see, empirically testable and very likely to be false. Unclear discourse and sentence structure are much more likely to induce misinterpretation than unfamiliar words, whose meaning can often be effortlessly recovered from context. And then, of course, unfamiliarity varies widely across speakers; many criticisms of jargon fail to notice that the jargon in question is perfectly clear to the intended readers of the text.

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