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Word for Word: When bureaucrats write, we get confused

We know you didn't read all those tax forms you just sent in. That release you had to sign at the hospital to have your arm X-rayed? Bet you didn't read that either. How about your mortgage? Car insurance policy? Bank statement?

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We don't blame you. Most official documents are so confusing, so complicated and badly written, you have to hire a lawyer to untangle the obfuscation.

But a former bureaucrat and her red-pen-wielding pals are out to change that. Annette Cheek, who worked 25 years as a federal employee, founded a nonprofit Center for Plain Language in 2003 because she believes "plain language is a civil right."

From her office in Silver Spring, Md., she works with employees of public and private agencies, helping them edit forms and newsletters, redesign releases, rewrite handbooks.

Her center also hosts an annual conference featuring seminars such as "Designing credit card statements to positively influence consumer behavior" and "The IRS changes taxpayer correspondence."

Cheek's goal, she said, is to make everyone demand plain language in public documents.

On Thursday, the Center for Plain Language handed out its first ClearMark awards at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Of the 190 entries, nine were named best in their division. The absolute, indisputable, unequivocal apex of all the myriad entrants submitted after copious solicitation . . . I mean . . . the winners, included:

Best revised document in the nonprofit sector: The consent for surgery form from Group Health. "An Institute of Medicine report found that the average consent form is at 17th grade level and exceeds the reading level of most American adults," said the entry form. "We decreased the number of words per sentence from 25.5 to 13.7 . . . and reduced grade level from 15.1 to 6.6."


Washington State Law guarantees that you have both the right and the obligation to make decisions concerning your health care. Your physician can provide you with the necessary information and advice, but as a member of the health care team you must enter into the decision-making process. This form has been designed to acknowledge your acceptance of treatment recommended by your physician.


Washington State law protects your right to make decisions about your health care. Your doctor can give you information and advice, but the final decision is always yours. . . . By signing this form, you consent to have the procedure listed below.


I consent to the administration of sedation or anesthesia by my attending physician, by an anesthesiologist, or other qualified party under the direction of a physician as may be deemed necessary.


Drugs that make me sleepy (anesthesia): I may receive anesthesia to make me numb or unconscious during the procedure. I may receive a drug to make me sleepy during the procedure. My doctor and health care team talked to me about how these drugs might harm me. In the private sector, the best original document was a newsletter for 3,000 Aetna employees "who write consumer material or who are interested in health literacy." Every article in the newsletter is computer-tested to make sure it is written at or below a fifth-grade reading level. The newsletter rewrote a letter for Aetna insurance holders who were taking the drug Zelnorm, which had been removed from the U.S. market.


Dear Member: On March 30, 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation has agreed to stop marketing Zelnorm (tegaserod). A study of patients taking Zelnorm found that there may be an increased risk of heart attack, chest pain and stroke associated with the use of the drug. Novartis agreed to withdraw Zelnorm in the United States until more research can be done. (Reading Grade Level: 10.1)


Dear Member: People who take Zelnorm may be at an increased risk of heart attack, chest pain and stroke. This news comes from a recent study. For this reason, the drug will no longer be sold in the United States. Pharmacies will no longer carry Zelnorm. And it will not be covered under your Aetna plan. (Reading Grade Level: 4.8)

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Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, Web sites and other sources. The text may be edited for space but the original spelling, grammar and punctuation are unchanged.

Word for Word: When bureaucrats write, we get confused 05/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 5:51pm]
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