Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Plain English: using you

A commenter writes--

  • [After agreeing that "I" is a good word to use in estate documents.] The pronoun "you" is another matter, however. In a letter to an individual the antecedent will be clear. In many other documents it is not clear. One example is the drafting of regulations.

    In the otherwise excellent discussion of plain-language regulations provided by the Federal Register here, the author recommends the use of "you" for whoever must comply with the regulations.

    This 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.

The commenter is right about this: you is widely recommended in guides for writing in plain English. Besides the website mentioned, I offer these sources:

How to Write Plain English by Rudolf Flesch:
  • "I consider the you style as absolutely indispensable for Plain English."
Writing Readable Regulations by Thomas Murawski:
  • "The most important word in regulatory writing is you."
Writing for the Legal Audience by Wayne Schiess:
  • "[U]sing you . . . is the single most important technique for making the text readable and effective."

But is the commenter also right about ambiguity?

If the you could be the person who must comply or the person who must enforce or the person who is protected, isn't that a problem? Not as big a problem as you might think. More to come.

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