March 28, 2008


It's tax season here in America and that usually leads to lots of mumbling under the breath about those "damn bureaucrats in Washington" who make up those unreadable tax forms. Several words in the English language  rise to the level of making us mad and bureaucrat seems to be one of them. When our tax filing gets challenged, we blame those nasty bureaucrats at IRS. When we're bogged down with pages of needless forms to fill out, it's the fault of those anonymous servants of the government who are the problem. When a statute is incomprehensible, it's the bureaucrat's fault, even though we might better place the blame on the legislators who wrote it in the first place.

I rise today to defend those bureaucrats. Please stop hissing and booing. Let me explain why.

I suppose I rise to defend bureaucrats because I lived in Washington DC for almost half of my life, surrounded by lots of friends and neighbors who toiled somewhere in the bowels of the federal government. Most of them were really nice folks, just like the rest of us. Sure, they made errors sometimes (just like the rest of us) and occasionally they followed those arcane regulations to the point of seeming unreasonable. But hey, that was their job. They had to. The poor souls at the Social Security Administration (SSA), Medicaid, or Health and Human Services send out notices on which they aren't even allowed to even sign their own names. These are the anonymous sloggers who dutifully work at the job they were hired to do, often without the proper tools to it well. But they do the best they can anyway.

And, as I finally get around to the subject of language (after all, this is Language Log), I have to agree that bureaucrats often write perfectly dreadful prose. But rather than grousing about this or going into another of those language rants that we are so famous for at Language Log Plaza, consider this novel idea: why not try to help with this problem?

Over the years I've worked with a number of bureaucracies, trying to help them make their documents understandable to the general public. One of my favorite cases was one brought by the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC) against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over two decades ago. NSCLC charged that the notices being sent out by SSA to Medicare recipients were unclear, unhelpful, and not even readable. The case focused on one notice that was intended to inform all SSA recipients that they also might be entitled to an additional SSA benefit, Supplementary Security Income (SSI). The case wended its way through the court system and finally ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled for the plaintiff. Legal resolutions don't often guarantee immediate action, however, and it took quite a while for SSA to get around to sending out this notice to all Social Security recipients. That notice was so badly written and incomprehensible that NSCLC threatened HHS with still another lawsuit.

It was at that point that NSCLC asked me to rewrite the offending notice so that it could be understood by recipients. They liked my revision (which was actually a totally new attempt) and they submitted it to SSA, where the director liked enough to agree to send it out, thereby fending off still another round in federal court.

The really interesting thing, however, is that the Director of SSA, recognizing a serious internal problem in her bureau, then invited me to come to the SSA home office in Baltimore to train her notice writers to produce clear and informative notices like the one I produced about SSI. I agreed, and over the following two years (1984-1986) I trained about a hundred SSA bureaucrats in six, six-week sessions (each containing 15 or more notice writers working in their main and regional offices). I can't give you the details of this training program here (if you're interested, you can read about it in my 1998  book, Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business but I can say that these bureaucrats greatly benefited from my assigned fieldwork (linguists do this a lot), finding old people to test their revisions on. When their subjects understood what they wrote, the notice writers knew they were on to something. These bureaucrats also learned about topic analysis and topic sequencing and they even became rather competent in recognizing and using speech acts in their prose. In addition they were given some rudimentary principles of semantics, pragmatics, syntax, and usage--all based on the documents they were preparing to send out to the public.

These bureaucrats were good people and good bureaucrats. But they had been caught up in the contagious rigidity of the bureaucratic prose fostered by the system. Like most of us who learn to use the language of our fields (doctors and policemen come to mind), they had no background in writing clear and effective prose and, of course, no knowledge of linguistics. But even the small dose they got in this training program seems to have brought about an important change in that bureaucracy.

I was concerned, however, about whether this training would endure. I found my answer a few years later, when I retired and started to receive Social Security benefits myself. The notices I began to get were clear and informative. Something must have worked. One nice thing about bureacracies is that it's hard to change things once they get established. This experience shows, I hope, that it's more useful to try to help with a problem than simply to throw stones at it. What these bureaucrats needed was adequate information about how they could use language effectively to do their daily jobs.

So that's why "bureaucrat" isn't such a bad word for me.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 28, 2008 09:37 AM