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Plain Language. Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2012. Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012. What is Plain Language?

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Plain language

Plain Language

Administrative Policy Writing

Spring 2012


Administrative policy writing fall 2012
Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

What is Plain Language?

  • “Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily.”

  • (From plainlanguage.gov.)


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Why is Plain Language Important?

    • “Plain language” is the current movement in government and business writing.

    • The plain-language movement arose as a reaction against the bureaucratic style.

      • Prose in the bureaucratic style is needlessly difficult to read, uses archaic words and phrases, and is generally inaccessible to the average citizen.

      • The movement away from bureaucratic style emerged in the 1970s. Plain language advocates argued that the large volume of inaccessibly bureaucratic documents produced by the federal government was not appropriate in a democratic society.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Why is Plain Language Important?

    • Thus, plain-language reform began as an effort is to make government communication readable and understandable.

    • This goes back to our theme of openness and transparency in government writing.

    • In the 70s and 90s, there were series of executive orders mandating plain language in the federal government.

    • The Plain Writing Act of 2010, signed by President Obama, requires heads of federal agencies to use plain language in documents produced by their agencies.

    • Private industry has also embraced the plain language movement.

    • So what does plain language look like?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Bureaucratic Style

    • Before we discuss the elements of plain language, let’s look at what it isn’t to give you a sense of what the plain language movement is struggling against.

    • The following is a “before and after” from plainlanguage.gov.

    • The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) published a quick reference document for boat operators “skippers” who are required to participate in training workshops put on by the NOAA.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Before and After

    • Before:

      • Huh???


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Before and After

    • After:

    • What are the differences?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    What are the Elements of Plain Language?

    • For the next two weeks, we are going to talk about the following elements of plain language:

      • This week:

        • Audience

        • Paragraphs

      • Next week:

        • Sentences

        • Words

    • Our discussion borrows a good deal from the Federal Plain Language Guidelines. A document published at plainlanguage.gov.

    • There is a link to this document on the course web page. You can review the concepts we discuss and see more examples in that document.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Audience

    • Documents written in any context are usually directed toward one or more audience, whether real or imagined.

    • An audience may be one particular person or a group of people.

      • Your boss

      • A client

      • Accountants

      • A government agency

    • Identifying your audience and writing for that audience and their expectations will enhance clarity and increase your ability to be persuasive.

    • Decisions about word choice and presentation of material will depend upon your audience.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Audience

    • The idea is to write in a way that is clear and understandable to your audience.

    • What is understandable varies from one audience to another and requires adaptation.

    • One example of such adaptation is the use of jargon.

    • Jargon is “the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.” (dictionary.com).

    • When you are writing in a plain-language style, is it ok to use jargon?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Audience

    • Answer: it depends on your audience.

    • If you are writing to members of a group that has a unique jargon, they may expect to see it. If you are writing to the general public, you should seek to minimize it.

    • In fact, you may need to understand and use an audience’s jargon in order to establish your own credibility with a particular profession or other group.

    • Jargon can include

      • Technical vocabulary: “The company has installed two electrostatic precipitators.”

      • Terms of art: “consideration” has an everyday meaning and a completely different legal meaning.

      • Acronyms: LIFO, NPDES, etc.

    • Consider the following manual published by the EPA.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Audience

    • An electrostatic precipitator is a piece of pollution-control equipment used in various industries.

    • It removes fine particles called particulate matter from an emission source (a smoke stack). Particulate matter is a form of air pollution.

    • Who is the likely audience for a training manual on industrial pollution control equipment?

    • Notice the document uses terms without any explanation:

      • “particulate matter,”

      • “coal-fired utility boilers,” and

      • “electrostatic precipitator”

    • If the audience is already familiar with these terms, is the previous page written in plain language for that audience?

    • Would an ordinary member of the public consider this document to be written in plain language?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Paragraphs

    • The Guidelines list four elements of clear paragraphs:

      • Have a topic sentence.

      • Use transition words.

      • Write short paragraphs.

      • Cover only one topic in each paragraph.

    • We will talk about each of these in turn.

    • Plus, we will look at several common types of paragraphs.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Paragraphs

    • But first: why address paragraphs? Are paragraphs really that important?

    • Paragraphs do a couple of important things:

      • By grouping sentences in logical patterns, you help the reader understand the message.

      • By breaking a large, complex idea down into manageable chunks, you make the message less intimidating.

  • Move away from constructing paragraphs randomly by whatever thought pops into your head.

  • Many writers do not think very much about how their paragraphs are organized.

  • Move toward paragraphing intentionally.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Have a Topic Sentence

    • The Guidelines provide:

      • “If you flood readers with details first, they become impatient and may resist hearing your message. A good topic sentence draws the audience into your paragraph.”

    • You have to be intentional about writing topic sentences because it is contrary to the way we think.

      • often we think about a topic in a haphazard way.

      • or we start with a conclusion, and then think of the reasons or necessary background information later.

    • The topic sentence is not your conclusion. Rather, it is the general subject-matter to be developed in the paragraph.

    • The ultimate conclusion of the paragraph may be near the end.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Have a Topic Sentence

    • Also, the Guidelines point out that readers want to be able to skim the document and gather the essential information.

    • Suspense, allusion, and metaphor are not valued in professional writing.

    • Clear topic sentences help your readers get the information they need quickly.

    • They also help the mind understand and process technical information.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Topic Sentence Example


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Topic Sentence Example

    • Notice how the topic sentence orients us to the subject.

    • We are talking about B&E Concrete. They manufacture construction materials. That is the preliminary information we need to understand this paragraph concerning their operation.

    • The last sentence expresses a conclusion that is based on this topic and additional facts.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Topic Sentence Example

    • If the conclusion were placed first, the paragraph would be harder to read. It would introduce too much information to process:

      • the idea of this B&E company

      • feedstock reports

      • EPA enforcement

    • Also leading with the conclusion is frustrating for the reader. The reader must take it as true and read the entire paragraph. The reader has to maintain that trust until the end of the paragraph.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Topic Sentence Example

    • If you put your paragraph conclusion first, the reader might have to go back to the first sentence, read it again, and decide if your conclusion makes sense.

    • Don’t require your reader to put in this extra effort.

    • Use a topic sentence that logically leads to a conclusion so the reader can see how you got there on the first reading.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Use Transition Words

    • Often topic sentences serve another purpose: they link one paragraph to another.

    • Use transition words to show the reader you are linking ideas.

    • The Guidelines discuss the following types:

      • Pointing words: this, that, etc.

      • Echo links: words or phrases that repeat previous ideas.

      • Explicit connectives: therefore, accordingly, thus, etc.

    • Let’s look at how they are used in topic sentences.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Use Transition Words


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Cause and Effect Paragraphs

    • Transition words also apply within paragraphs.

    • A well-constructed paragraph makes it easy to see the logical connection between ideas.

    • When dealing with “cause and effect” paragraphs, organize sentences so that they develop the idea of the previous sentence and ultimately reach your conclusion.

    • When you want to write about an event or idea in which one thing leads to another, think of a paragraph as a chain of reasoning.

    • Use transition words that refer back to a previous idea or show that you are constructing a chain: this, that, therefore, etc.

    • Consider the example paragraph we have been using. Notice two things about:

      • The logical development of ideas based the prior sentences.

      • The use of transition words to signal this development.



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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Other Paragraph Styles

    • Paragraphs can be categorized into a number of common types.

    • We just looked at a “cause and effect” style paragraph in which one event lead to certain other events.

    • Other typical paragraph styles:

      • Illustration

      • Comparison and contrast

      • Classification

    • It is helpful to see how these systems of organizing paragraphs function.

    • These styles can function as a sort of paragraphing tool kit.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Other Paragraph Styles

    • Illustration paragraphs: Topic sentence states a claim. Subsequent sentences illustrate, showing that the claim is true.

    • BTW: What parts of the topic sentence are not supported by the body sentences?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Other Paragraph Styles

    • Classification paragraphs: Topic sentence divides the topic into sub-parts or species. The body paragraphs explain and contrast each one.

    • Sometimes the topic sentence will list all the species.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Other Paragraph Styles

    • Classification:

      • Notice how the paragraph is also organized on the basis of the size of each group, from largest to smallest.

      • Notice also the author prevented the paragraph from being to monotonous: First group is this; second group is this; third group is this. The third group is introduced by how they are treated.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Other Paragraph Styles

    • Compare and Contrast paragraphs: Develops the paragraph topic by using similarities and differences.

    • Used when you want to highlight a change.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Other Paragraph Styles

    • Compare and Contrast paragraphs: Also notice how the paragraph is organized.

      • The first sentence expresses the “before” condition.

      • The second sentence provides evidence or explains the “before” condition.

      • The third sentence provides evidence or explains the “after” condition.

      • Then the fourth sentence expresses the “after” condition.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Write Short Paragraphs

    • Short paragraphs are easier to understand.

    • They ask readers to process the text is smaller, bite-sized chucks.

    • Accordingly, short paragraphs are more likely to actually be read.

    • Business and government messages can be interpreted as “boring.” Especially by ordinary citizens.

    • Thus, your subject-matter itself means you are starting with the distinct disadvantage in keeping an audience’s attention.

    • Look at the following example. Do you want to read this?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Write Short Paragraphs

    • Me neither!

    • But the hard reality is that professional writers must deal with tedious and boring information.

    • And often they have to communicate it to an audience that is distracted, has a short attention span, or doesn’t care.

    • Use short paragraphs to make tedious writing less painful.

    • Short paragraphs can mean as few as two sentences, or sometimes even one. (Yes, one.)

    • Then use subject headings to break up the material into identifiable parts.

    • Notice the short paragraphs and subject headings in the following guidance document on public drinking water systems.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Write Short Paragraphs

    • What would the same document look like without the short paragraphs and subject headings?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Cover One Topic per Paragraph

    • The Guidelines also suggest limiting the subject-matter of paragraphs to one topic.

    • For example:

      • If you are discussing a procedure one must follow, make paragraphs based on each step. Don’t combine steps in one paragraph. It is easier for readers to skip a step.

      • If you are discussing a subject that has many alternatives, treat each alternative as a separate paragraph.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Homework

    • Review the Plain Language Guidelines.

      • Only Sections I, II, and III(c).

    • Complete the Plain Language Exercises 1 and 2.

    • I also have links to the Plain Writing Act of 2010 and a blog maintained by an organization called the Center for Plain Language.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Plain Language Part II

    Sentences and Word


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Sentences

    • This week we are continuing our discussion of communicating with plain language.

    • Remember, the purpose is to make writing clear and concise.

    • Why is this important? Writers in the government assume their material is for the public and that it should be easy to understand.

    • This week: sentences and word choice.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Sentences

    • Let’s talk about five elements for writing clear sentences. Not all of these appear in the Guidelines.

      • Write short sentences.

      • Keep subject, verb, and object close together.

      • Place the main idea before exceptions.

      • Avoid action-verb separation and character-subject separation

      • Be careful with the passive voice.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Write Short Sentences

    • This seems like pretty straight-forward advice. But it is often more difficult than it sounds.

    • Professional writers have the challenge of conveying complicated information.

    • Suppose a writer is tasked with explaining a series of requirements.

    • This is made difficult by the fact that each requirement has different exceptions and other nuances.

    • Consider the following sentence that tries to cover too much ground.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Write Short Sentences

    • That is one sentence.

    • Notice how hard it is to understand. What exactly is a public water supply system?

    • How could this sentence be split into several?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Write Short Sentences

    • That is much easier to read. Use of bullet points also helps.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Keep SVO Close

    • The subject, verb, and direct object of a sentence usually convey the essential meaning.

    • Other phrases and modifiers limit or qualify that essential meaning.

    • When writers insert modifying phrases between subject and verb, the sentence becomes harder to read.

      • “The investigator, after climbing to the roof-top of the refinery, observed at or near the time the suspect valve was opened an explosion.”

    • Consider the example given in the Guidelines:


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Keep SVO Close

    • What did they do to the sentence?

    • Did they lose any information in the revision?

    • If all the modifying information is important to the writer, how could the sentence be reworked?


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Keep SVO Close

    • How could you rework the example about observing an explosion?

    • “The investigator, after climbing to the roof-top of the refinery, observed at or near the time the suspect valve was opened an explosion.”

  • Assume all the information is essential to the writer’s purpose.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Place the Main Idea First

    • Technical information is often structured in a way that includes a general idea or requirement, and then a number of exceptions to that requirement.

    • Sentences that put the exceptions first are difficult to read. Such sentences ask you to keep in your mind an exception to something which has not yet been revealed.

    • Anytime you ask a reader to understand something you have not yet explained, you have lost clarity.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Place the Main Idea First

    • About mid-way through the exceptions, you are probably wondering what this sentence is about.

    • This is a very common fault in policy and government writing.

    • A textbook example from Texas solid waste regulations:



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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Action/Verb Separation

    • Avoid action-verb separation: the activity of the sentence is not the main verb.

      • Ex: Niles Eldrege and Stephen Jay Gould made the observation that the history of the book is marked by long periods of stability in format alternating with periods of radical change.

    • What is the main activity? The observation.

    • What is the verb? Made.

    • Therefore, the verb in this sentence doesn’t really express the action. The true action is turned into a noun (an observation).

    • Instead, just say:

      • Niles Eldrege and Stephen Jay Gould observed that …


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Action-Verb Separation

    • More examples:

      • These days, the main activities of freshmen are complaints about the cafeteria food.

    • The main activity of the sentence is made into a noun (complaints). The grammatical verb is weak (are).

    • Do you see how the verb complain is much more expressive than the vague are?

    • Revised:

      • These days, freshmen are complaining about the cafeteria food.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Action-Verb Separation

    • More examples:

      • The shuttle first achieved flight in 1981.

    • The grammatical verb is achieved.

    • But the real action of activity is flight, which is made into a noun.

    • Revise:

      • The shuttle first flew in 1981.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Character-Subject Separation

    • Avoid character-subject separation: The actor in the sentence is not stated as the subject.

      • Ex. Complaints by freshmen about the cafeteria food have been frequent.

    • Who is the actor? The freshmen.

    • What is the subject of the sentence? Complaints.

    • Therefore, the subject of this sentence is not the actor.

    • There isn’t anything grammatically incorrect about such a sentence. It is just harder to read.

    • Why? Because we expect the subject of sentences to do the action. That is the typical order of English sentences:

      • The dog chased the boy.

      • The Texas Rangers went to the World Series last year.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Character-Subject Separation

    • So how can we revise the sentence to make the subject into the main actor?

      • Complaints by freshmen about the cafeteria food have been frequent.

    • Bring the freshmen to the subject position:

      • Freshmen have frequently complained about the cafeteria food.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Character-Subject Separation

    • Example:

      • The amendment was passed with the cooperation of Congress and the president.

    • What is the subject of the sentence? The amendment.

    • Who is the actor in this sentence? Congress and the president.

    • Revised:

      • The president and Congress cooperated to pass the amendment.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • There is a great deal of confusion over the passive voice.

    • Some people vaguely remember that it is “bad.”

    • This is not true. It is an important tool in the English language.

    • Good writers know when to use it and when to avoid it.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • What is the passive voice?

    • It is best explained by comparison to its alternative, the active voice.

    • Active voice: The subject performs the action.

    • Passive voice: The subject is acted upon.

    • In a passive sentence, the actor is either left unstated or is named in a “by” phrase after the main verb.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • Examples:

      • Active: The motorcyclist hit the pedestrian.

      • Passive: The pedestrian was hit by the motorcyclist.

      • Passive: The pedestrian was hit.

    • The motorcyclist is the actor in this sentence. It is the one doing the hitting.

    • In the first sentence, it is the subject. Thus, Active.

    • The subject of the second two sentences is the thing being acted upon, not the actor. Thus, passive.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • How can you recognize the passive voice in a sentence?

    • The passive is constructed using a form of the verb “to be” + the past participle of the verb.

      • Present: Pass

      • Past Participle: Passed

      • Present: Destroy

      • Past Participle: Destroyed


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • Is there a way to recognize the passive voice without the grammatical jargon?

    • Ask the question “by whom” or “by what”?

    • If the answer isn’t the subject of the sentence, it’s in the passive voice.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • Active: I destroyed the enemy.

    • Passive: The enemy was destroyed.

    • Active: Congress passed the bill.

    • Passive: The bill was passed by Congress.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • The passive voice can be problematic because it buries or obscures the actor.

    • This is especially true in professional writing that concerns obligations and responsibilities. If a sentence imposes an obligation on someone, you should always be clear about who that someone is.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Passive Voice

    • The passive voice is appropriate in situations where you want to de-emphasize the actor or when the actor is unknown.

    • “The store was robbed six times last year.”

      • Robbed by whom? We might not know.

      • Or the identity of the robbers might not matter in the context.

    • Moral of the story: don’t avoid the passive voice. Use it wisely.


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    Administrative Policy Writing Fall 2012

    Homework

    • Review the Plain Language Guidelines.

      • Read Section III(a)-(b).

    • Complete the Plain Language Revision Exercise 3.

    • Complete the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners Plain Language Revision Project.

      • Revise a terribly written letter for plain language and business letter formatting.

    • Optional: For more practice on character/subject and action/verb problems, see the site maintained by David McMurrey (Business and Tech Communication ACC)

    • Optional: Review the Federal Aviation Administration’s web page on plain language.


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