Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Plain English: using "you" part 2

A commenter wrote--
  • "[Using you in regulations] . . . can lead to ambiguity. Regulations are written to be read not only by those who must comply but those who must enforce and those who are protected by the regulations."

My response
The commenter is pointing out that regulations have dual audiences: those who must comply and those who must enforce (and there could be more audiences). This is common in legal writing:
  • You write a will for the testator but you know a judge may construe it.
  • You write a letter to a client but you know your supervisor will read it.
  • You prepare jury instructions for the jury but you know appellate judges will review them.
I assert that it is impossible to write clear, effective text that suits dual audiences on all occasions. The knowledge and expectations of the dual audiences are simply too different.

The solution?

For me, the solution is to look at the problem of dual audiences in a new way, with an insight I gained from a recent book review. Drury Stevenson, Book Review: Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction To Language in the Justice System, by John Gibbons, 77 U. Colo. L. Rev. 257 (2005).

Relying on the work of linguists, Professor Stevenson deconstructs the dual-audience problem and re-frames it as a problem of one audience with "bystanders" and "overhearers." In other words, we write jury instructions for juries--period. But we know that appellate judges are bystanders--or "reviewers." Id. at 269.

So don't write jury instructions for appellate judges; that is not your audience. Write them for the nonlawyers on juries. After all, the reviewing judges are not really reading the instructions for comprehension; they are reading them to see if the proper information was conveyed to the jury. Id.

As for regulations, write them--using you--for those who must comply. The enforcers of and those protected by the regulations are bystanders. If the you varies in a regulation, "announce each audience in a heading, if clause, or note." Thomas Muraswski, Writing Readable Regulations at 35. (The books contains other helpful advice for avoiding the potential ambiguities of you.)

So for me, the dual-audience problem is a false one. Aim at your primary audience, and don't get hung up on the bystanders.

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