Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Can't We All Speak English?

To The Maryland General Assembly: Can’t We All Speak English?

I was so pleased to see House Bill 885: English Language- Formal Recognition. At last, I thought, a bill that would require our state legislators to write statutes in something that resembled plain, easily comprehensible English. I was disappointed to read the synopsis of HB885: “Designating the English language as the official language of the State of Maryland ; and making provisions of the Act severable.” The proposed bill has nothing to do with the creation of laws that we can all understand. The purpose of House Bill 885, from the best I can figure, is to assert what already obviously is.

For the past three years, I have been a Bill Screener for our local shrinkiatric organization. This means that every day during the legislative session, I read a portion of the proposed legislation—specifically any bills ending in the numbers 81 to 90-- and I flag those that might pertain to the practice of psychiatry or might have an impact on the care of psychiatric patients.

Reading proposed legislation can be a challenge. Take, for example, Senate Bill 687 Youth Services Bill—Services. The synopsis reads: “Repealing a provision that makes the provision of specified required services by a youth services bureau subject to the availability of funding; etc.” And that means? Okay, if I think about it long enough, and if I wait a few days for the First Reading of the bill to be available on-line, I might get it, but I’m left to ask why this has to be so complicated.

As a committee, when we look at proposed legislation we try to figure out what exactly the language means. Legislation is written in grammatically incorrect, wordy, obscure, and nonspecific terminology that defies understanding by anyone not used to reading it, and perhaps even by those who are used to reading it. We are left to ask, what is the intent of the bill and what might the unintended consequences of its passage be?

I wonder why legislation isn’t written in short sentences with obvious intent. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, I invite you to look up Senate Bill 821: “Prohibiting a person from tethering or confining a pregnant pig for a specified amount of time in a specified manner; providing exceptions to the prohibition; establishing specified penalties for a violation of the Act; and establishing that each instance of tethering or confining a pig constitutes a separate offense.” This 3-page bill declares that it will be illegal to tether pregnant pigs except, of course, for specified reasons. “Pig,” “farm,” and “turning around freely,” are defined, but oddly, “majority of any day” is not defined and there is nothing to indicate how a farmer might be expected to know his pig is pregnant. I’ll readily admit that I didn’t look up the 1999 Annotated Code this will serve to supplement. Can I wonder whose agenda this is, why just pigs, and why just pregnant pigs? Granted, a subject I know nothing about, but it seems there could be a law against restraining pregnant pigs that the average psychiatrist could understand with a single reading. It took me three readings, slowly, and the language, which tries so hard to be precise, remains vague and leaves plenty of room for pig-restraining violators to wiggle free.

Apparently, I’m not the first person to complain about “legalese.” The Plain Language Association International has members in ten countries and The Plain English campaign has existed in London since 1979. Most discussions of the use of plain English, however, refer to legal contracts, only a few to the language of proposed legislation. Shouldn’t our laws be written with language that includes, rather than excludes, the citizens of Maryland? Simply put, any member of the Maryland General Assembly who proposes a law requiring that our statutes be constructed in simple sentences will get my vote.


yay said...

Well essentially I can understand the basic gist of what you are communicating, however before I make any comments on this matter I will need you to submit a form, in triplicate, explaining clauses 5, 52, 63874 and the subscript in clause 14. The form, once submitted, will be processed in due course and the outcome of the processing process will then be analysed by a committee with an interest in such matters. Should the committee come to an agreement on a possible course of action that will meet the usual budget constraints of projects of this type, a form will then be submitted to the central bureau of bureaucracy where it will be stamped in a number of different departments and returned to you. You must then take the form to your nearest bureaucracy department representative (between 10 and 11am on Thursdays only) to obtain a feedback code. This code can then be submitted at the Department of Feedback (in person). The outcome of your case will be forwarded to you within 6-8 working weeks. Please remember to bring a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Failure to provide this will result in your case being dismissed.

Roy said...

Great post, Dinah! We should encourage doctors to do the same. Instead of saying "The left anterior descending artery in your cardiac tissue has a 90% stenosis, and without immediate angioplasty, there is a risk of occlusion and myocardial infarction," say this instead, "The main blood vessel in your heart is blocked and, unless we open it back up, you may have a heart attack and die."

I still overhear patient and family conversations which sound like the first one. I'm not saying dumb it down; I'm saying communicate. Start with the main message, then add layers of information on top of it.

As for legislation, that's hopeless. We need clear talk, like this from President Bush:
"Because the—all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those—changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be—or closer delivered to what has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the—like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate—the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those—if that growth is affected, it will help on the red."—Explaining his plan to save Social Security, Tampa, Fla., Feb. 4, 2005

Sarebear said...