Plain Language: Not a Fairy Tale

Today is my 200th Writing Tip of the Day, so I prepared something very special to celebrate this milestone. I’ve included some quotes about using plain language in technical writing, alonb with a fun story about Little Red Riding Hood written in technical jargon.

Plain Language: It’s the Law

On October 13, 2010, US President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to use clear communication that the public can understand. On January 18, 2011, he issued Executive Order 13563 – Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review,” which stated that the US regulatory system “must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.”

To carry out these orders, a community of US federal employees called Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) has been providing advice on how to communicate in plain English. However, after reading the directions while filling out my federal income tax forms, it is clear they have not made any presentations to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) yet! Their website is:

On this website I found a hilarious version of the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” written in technical engineering-speak. I tell you, much of what I edit tends to sound exactly like this non-plain language. I also found a bunch of quotations of famous people about the importance of using plain language. So, Happy 200th Tip of the Day — Enjoy!

Little Red Riding Hood
At a previous but undetermined timeframe, a single-family domestic domicile was inhabited by a young girl, known as Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH), and her Maternal Parent (MP). The Maternal Parent (MP) had once provided for the fabrication of an article of clothing, a cloak in nature (including a “hood” or protective covering for the head of the wearer), that was RGB code [255,0,0] in hue (a.k.a., “red”). As a result of this action, and the resultant repeated usage of the “hood”, the young girl was always known as LRRH in substitution for the name identified on her birth certificate and other identifying documentation.

During one 24-hour interval, a request was issued by the MP for LRRH to deliver a package to the MP’s Maternal Parent (MPMP) (genealogically identified as the Grandmaternal Unit (GU) with respect to LRRH). This package was to include:
• cheesecakes
• fresh butter
• one dozen (12) strawberries

Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH) optioned to accept the Task Order (TO). LRRH further sourced a package delivery vehicle with the proper functionality for the Task Order, selecting a wicker basket. After a thorough and complete market survey, leveraging LRRH’s experience with similar Task Orders in the past, cheesecake and fresh butter were acquired from the kitchen, whereas strawberries were acquired from the garden. While the latter item was not, strictly speaking, within the bounds of the Task Order, the marginal cost savings as compared to waiting for strawberries to grow in the kitchen appeared to be of great benefit to the MP in the completion of the Task.

With initial outsourcing complete, the journey was commenced by LRRH (see Appendix A: Proposed Map of Route Between the Domiciles of MP and GU). During a brief eleventh-hour meeting, MP issued a contract rider requiring the complete confidentiality of all personnel working the Task Order. LRRH assured MP that there would be no violation of this rider.

In the course of executing the Task Order, LRRH was approached by market competitor Old Grey Wolf (OGW). There were inquiries from OGW to LRRH regarding the nature of the Task Order, and in violation of the contract rider, LRRH disclosed sensitive and mission-critical data relating to the Task. Table 1-1 illustrates the nature of the information believed to have been compromised:

Table 1: Information Compromised by LRRH During Interactions with OGW
Nature of Data                 Disclosed To           Severity of Disclosure
Contents of Basket              Old Grey Wolf             Medium
Nature of Task                      Old Grey Wolf             High
Destination of Journey    Old Grey Wolf             High

The identity of LRRH had been predetermined by OGW using standard practices of observation; therefore, that information was not compromised by the actions of LRRH.

It was the intent of OGW to compromise the functionality of LRRH, but the potential negative impact on its operations by the nearby presence of an organized unit of fully functional Wood Cutters (WC) provided for the redirection of its action item to the domicile of GU.

Though LRRH had blatantly violated the terms of the contract rider, this violation went unreported to supervisory entities (i.e., MP) by the violator. LRRH continued to action the Task Order despite clear and compelling evidence that the integrity of the process had been disenfranchised by the OGW.

While LRRH continued to analyze its processes through the implementation of the Task Order, OGW leveraged its greater cumulative experience and used Best Practices to arrive at the GU client site in a more efficient and expedient manner than LRRH. Therein, the functionality of GU was impacted by the biorhythmic needs of OGW in a negative manner.

Upon the dissemination of information related to the pending closure of the Task Order assigned to LRRH, OGW engaged in an enterprise-wide analysis of situational readiness. Determining that there were vulnerabilities in OGW’s methodology, OGW elected to redesign the external identifiers of OGW to better emulate those of GU, by means of intalling the nightgown generally associated with GU and altering the vocal patterns of OGW to align with precedents set by GU.

After completing the Task Order by delivering the deliverables:
• cheesecakes;
• fresh butter; and
• one dozen (12) strawberries,
LRRH recorded observations of the host system. These observations included, but were not limited to:
• My, what big ears you have!
• My, what big eyes you have!
• My, what a big nose you have!
• My, what big teeth you have!

Upon receipt of the host system status analysis, OGW prepared and delivered a response regarding the functionality of the concerned functionalities, to include:
• This functionality leverages the soundwaves generated from other sources, such as LRRH, to amplify the positive audio signal from such sources for the end user.
• This functionality absorbs underutilized light emissions and their reflection from objects thereon, such as LRRH, to better provide for the identification of nearby entities by the end user.
• This functionality analyzes the available transient atmospheric particles against a matrix of known particle cultures, such as LRRH, to provide near-instantaneous and transparent supplemental feedback to the end user.
• This functionality greatly impacts the capacity of the OGW to reprocess physical assets related to LRRH in such a manner as to benefit the continued functional life-cycle of the OGW operations!!

Immediately thereafter, Old Grey Wolf (OGW) executed its asset plan action item and severely compromised the functionality of Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH).

:-)  Read that as a bedtime story to your kids tonight — I bet they fall asleep a whole lot faster!

Famous Quotations about Plain Language
“If you can’t explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it to any intelligent layman, that really means that you don’t understand it yourself.”
– Allan Bromley, former President of the American Physical Society

“In science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”
– Sir Francis Darwin

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.
Everything should be as simple as it can be, yet no simpler.”
– Albert Einstein

“Even for the physicist, the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached.”
– Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize winner in Physics

“The grant proposals that are well written are usually the ones that get the checks.”
– Dr. Paul (Wyn) Jennings, Program Director, Graduate Research Traineeships, National Science Foundation

“It is impossible to disassociate language from science…To call forth a concept, a word is needed.”
– Antoine Lavoisier, Father of Modern Chemistry

“Clear writing is an essential ingredient of any communication and especially scientific communication.”
– Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO, American Association for the Advancement of Science

“Vague forms of speech have so long passed for mysteries of science, and hard words mistaken for deep learning, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but a hindrance to true knowledge.”
– John Locke, 1690

“Write for a scientist in another field. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence, but don’t overestimate their knowledge of a particular field. When writing about science, don’t simplify the science; simplify the writing.”
– Julie Ann Miller, Editor of Science News

“I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.”
– Blaise Pascal

“Without the crucial ability to write clearly and forcefully, you will find the process of getting support for your work more difficult.”
– David Porush, author of “A Short Guide to Writing about Science,” talking about applying for research funds.

“If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.”
– Erwin Schrodinger, Nobel Prize winner in Physics

“Clarity begins at home.”
– Edie Schwager, American Medical Writers Association

“Whatever is worth saying can be stated in fifty words or less.”
– Stan Ulam, mathematician

2 Responses to “Plain Language: Not a Fairy Tale”

  1. Bekah M. Says:

    Trying to read and comprehend this(and I know the original) almost made me dizzy!

  2. Plain English Please | Says:

    […] Blog: Technical Writing Tips for the Oil Patch […]

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