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Plain Speaker

Bruce Corsino promotes "usable, efficient, and transparent" writing inside government and out.

January-February 2010

Bruce V. Corsino

Bruce V. Corsino

Photograph by Junko Ito

Imagine understanding your tax form instructions the first time you read them.  What if all federal rules, safety warnings, and applications were clearly spelled out? While we’re at it, why not extend that efficiency to the texts in car manuals, mortgage applications, banking terms and conditions, shareholder policies, utility bills, food and drug labels—and even legal contracts? Such dreams can come true, maintains Bruce V. Corsino, M.Ed. ’80, through the adoption of “Plain Language.”

As head of the Plain Language Program  at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Corsino pushes for “usable, efficient, and transparent” writing throughout the government so readers can more quickly find, digest, and act on essential information. “There is no greater daily frustration for the American people than dealing with legalese and hard-to-read financial terminology,” he asserts. “One ripe and fertile example is how the mortgage industry helped create the current financial crisis by creating forms and documents that were not easy for borrowers to understand.” Plain language, he reports, is gaining popularity across the country because it makes sense: it boosts compliance, safety, and customer satisfaction. It also reduces costs and time associated with confusion and miscommunication.

This approach first gained momentum in the late 1990s when President Clinton directed agency and executive leaders to use clear language in all new documents and Vice President Al Gore ’69, LL.D. ’94, who monitored this initiative, created the “No Gobbledygook” Award. Plain language has since come to embody a social and consumerist movement that also has wide pragmatic allure for businesses and legal professionals intent on efficiency. In fact, some 36 states have passed plain language legislation, and now a federal law is a possibility.

Corsino, a trained psychologist and medical ethicist and retired colonel in the U.S. Army medical department, points also to what he sees as the larger context: plain language as a critical means of increasing access to fairness and justice. “It’s the civil-rights aspect of this that appeals to the militant in me,” he says. “If we don’t use plain language techniques to improve and clarify such things as jury and electronic voting-booth instructions, then the rights of defendants and voters are put at risk. These are but a few of many plain language civil-rights issues worth fighting for.” 

Several court cases have borne this out. One involving Medicare communications and another related to customs and immigration forms (deemed too difficult to understand), have focused attention on plain language as a national issue. In 2008, the House passed a proposed federal Plain Language Act requiring each executive agency to use it in any new public document. Barack Obama, J.D. ’91, and Hillary Clinton were among the bill’s Senate co-sponsors, but a scheduled vote was put on hold, partly because of the economic crisis. Similar acts, introduced early in 2009 in both chambers, are now under consideration.

 Whenever the law is enacted, Corsino plans to dash down the street from FAA headquarters to the U.S. Department of Education to promote plain language as “an essential required skill that should be a viable part of every English curriculum across the United States, a language skill that human beings learn along with writing poetry and prose. We’ve already got state laws,” he says, “but a federal law is a nice thing to have when I start marching around.”

 

It was while walking through hospital wards practicing life-support management in intensive-care units in Virginia that Corsino fully recognized the deep, emotional power of plain language—and important linguistic nuances. Many treatment teams, he reports, approached distraught relatives of comatose, terminally ill patients with a question phrased like this: “We’ve done all we can. Knowing that, would you please describe how you’d like us to manage the breathing machines for your loved one?” That sounds clear and compassionate, but Corsino says the wording is wrong and potentially harmful: it can make families feel as if they’re responsible for the patient’s death. “An entirely different emotional reaction develops,” he explains, “when we say to families, ‘Please tell us what you know about what your loved one would have wanted.’” 

While working as a psychologist and training interns and residents to conduct suicide evaluations, he’d have them ask, “How often do you have thoughts of harming yourself?” That’s better than the more typical, “Do you have thoughts of harming yourself?” he says, because the latter “stigmatizes the patient for thoughts of self-harm, and—because it is likely to be answered with a yes or a no—it does little to elicit any further response from the patient. In my world, every word counts, perhaps to a fault.” 

Building on his experience with patients’ families, Corsino helped write federal health-ethics laws and wrote guidebooks about informed consent and advance directives published by the National Center for Clinical Ethics (part of the Department of Veterans Affairs). And when he decided to make a career change from medical ethicist to self-described “plain language militant,” he focused on his passion for language: he became a speechwriter at the Pentagon before joining the FAA (one of the first agencies to adopt plain language as official policy, beginning in 1999). 

Corsino’s predecessor, Annetta Cheek, started the plain language effort—critical to an agency in charge of aviation safety, which largely depends on people understanding and following written policies, instructions, and emergency procedures—and went on to promote it throughout the federal government. During the last two years, Corsino has worked to greatly expand the program, building on the connection between clinical ethics and plain language. “In ethics, we speak of the beneficence as a virtue and principle of ‘Do good’ for patients,” he says. “I borrow that idea to solidify in all writers their ethical covenant with, and responsibility to care for, readers.”

Among his accomplishments to date, Corsino has led plain language revisions of at least 10 major FAA documents, on topics ranging from privacy and security to air-traffic control, and has helped the European Aviation Safety Agency build its own plain language program. He will lead a presentation on plain language ethics at the international plain language conference in Lisbon later this year. More than 500 writers, engineers, attorneys, and other staff members have taken a course he created in which students learn both specific techniques—replacing “promulgate,” “utilize,” and “due to the fact” with “issue,” “use,” and “because,” for example—and general principles, such as “More is not necessarily better.” “In grade school,” Corsino explains, “we need kids to write six paragraphs, not six words, about what they did on their summer vacation—that’s an essential training experience to help young people become functional, fluent citizens. The problem is, students later on have almost no chance to consider if and when six words might actually be better than six sentences.” He counts himself lucky that at Harvard (where his program at the school of education let him take courses in psychology and at the medical school) he had professors who insisted on parsimonious use of words: “Their sense that clear thinking precedes clear writing moved me to impose a discipline and self-consciousness on my work.” 

Corsino is an active member of The Plain Language Action and Information Network, a group of federal employees who have met for more than a decade. Its website (www.plainlanguage.gov) is run from his office, and offers information, resources, news articles, useful contacts, and dozens of authentic “before and after” writing examples, some of which are quite funny in a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. sort of way. 

Some critics might accuse plain language of playing a role in an overall decline in language use in American society, and in the “dumbing down” of texts. But Corsino is careful to say that plain language has very specific applications: it is not an effort to quash creativity, literary wit and elegance, or artistic expression. “We’re not saying, ‘Get rid of poetry, get rid of rhetoric!’ There’s a place for all of these things. Plain language is a very narrow skill for a unique purpose—when you need to be clear about something that people really need to understand.” 

He is also clear about what he can accomplish in government, and in one six-hour course. “I know that nobody wants to go home after they’ve had a hard day at work and start thinking about past participles,” he says, “so I have to create an experience that’s short and effective.”

 His final message to students? “Ineffective government writing is characterized by two qualities: the absence of pronouns and the overuse of passive-voice sentence constructions. If you can change those two things, your work will be vastly improved and America will be a better place.”  In the end, Corsino says, he is a realist, “content to create cultural change—even if it’s only one paragraph at a time.”