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FYI: Whatcom County Council endorses plain language in documents

Whatcom County Council member Rud Browne wants to make local government easier to understand as soon as possible (ASAP).

That's why he proposed, and the council unanimously approved last week, a "plain language" resolution clarifying how acronyms should be handled in county documents.

An acronym, to be clear, is a word or set of letters created from the initial letters of the main words in a name or phrase, such as FBI for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Browne's resolution lists four ways the county can reduce what I call "acronymphobia" - the fear of looking stupid because you don't understand acronyms bandied about in public meetings and county paperwork.

- Use acronyms only for names or phrases that appear numerous times within a document.

- Spell out the name or phrase the first time it appears, followed by its acronym enclosed by parentheses.

- Present acronyms later without parentheses and in full capital letters, such as DOH, instead of DoH, for the Department of Health.

- Compile a list of acronyms used by the county and post it on the county website. County documents would include the link to the list.

In the old, acronym-heavy days, such changes might have been called "Reducing Unnecessary Density By Removing Overly Wonky Nouns Excessive" (RUD BROWNE).

To avoid such gobbledygook, the resolution also encourages county workers to follow guidelines from the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a group of federal workers who support the radical idea that clear language should be used in government writing.

Browne, who founded a business that refurbished and sold barcode equipment and mobile devices, said smart companies use clear language when communicating with customers, and government should do the same.

"Government has customers, and has the same obligation for its customers to understand what they're saying," he said.

Not convinced? Try translating this: "The state DFW called on the BPA to conduct a DEIS to ensure that BAS is used when assessing the impact of LWD in EFH."

Translation: "The state Department of Fish and Wildlife called on the Bonneville Power Administration to conduct a draft environmental impact statement to ensure that best available science is used when assessing the impact of large wood debris in essential fish habitat."

That won't win any writing awards, but you get the drift. All of those acronyms, by the way, came from a list of more than 250 used by county government.

Browne knows that acronyms, like rich desserts and friendly advice, are fine when served in moderation, but can produce bewilderment and frustration when done to excess. Keeping acronyms, and foggy writing in general, under control are important, he said, in our complex world.

"You do any job long enough and there's some degree of tunnel vision," he said. "You can't assume your reader has the same background context and knowledge as you."

PLAIN TALK

To learn about the "plain language" effort at the federal level, go to plainlanguage.gov.

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