“Persistence is one of the great characteristics of a pitbull, and I guess owners take after their dogs,” says Annetta Cheek, the co-founder of the D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Plain Language. Cheek, an anthropologist by training who left academia in the early 1980s to work for the Federal Aviation Commission, is responsible for something few people realize exists: the 2010 Plain Writing Act. In fact, Cheek was among the first government employees to champion the use of clear, concise language. Once she retired in 2007 from the FAA and gained the freedom to lobby, she leveraged her hatred for gobbledygook to create an actual law. Take a look at recent information put out by many government agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—if it lacks needlessly complex sentences or bizarre bureaucratic jargon, it’s largely because of Cheek and her colleagues.
The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one—and it isn’t limited to government agencies, of course. The problem of needlessly complex writing—sometimes referred to as an “opaque writing style”—has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition. Take this example:
The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.
That little doozy appears in Barbara Vinken’s Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out, published by Stanford University Press, and was recently posted to a listserv used by clear-language zealots—many of whom are highly qualified academics who are willing to call their colleagues out for being habitual offenders of opaque writing. Yet the battle to make clear and elegant prose the new status quo is far from won.