If I had to pick a fictional character I'm most like, it would be Fancy Nancy, the girl in a series of books by children's author Jane O'Connor. She loves big words. She'd rather go on an excursion than a trip and demonstrate her dance moves instead of showing them off.
But I try not to write with Fancy Nancy words. They drive readers away.
Similarly, when governments stuff their documents with big words, it pushes away the public. Historically, that was the intent. It was why kings and popes issued dictates in Latin throughout Europe long after the language went out of common use. Reader Jud Ellinwood recently complained to the Eureka City Council that the language it used in its public meeting agendas made them difficult to understand. He used this example of an agenda item: "Conference with legal counsel-anticipated litigation. Significant exposure to litigation: one case. Pursuant to California Government Code Section 54956.9."
The item described a closed session meeting about actions taken to remove homeless people from the Palco Marsh. But you wouldn't know that if you didn't already know that.
I poked through some agendas and found an item described this way:
"Pardoe Street Vacation Recommendation: 1. Receive the Planning Commission's recommendation to vacate the subject right-of-way; and 2. Adopt a Resolution of the City Council listing the Findings of Fact; and 3. Declare the Council's intention to "Order the Vacation" by adopting a Resolution of the City Council Declaring its intention to order the Vacation of a portion of "Q" Street along the West side of 1603 Hayes Street with conditions (APN 012-171-017) (Pardoe, Case No. SV-15-00)."
This use of difficult language by local governments is something I've noticed in pretty much every place I've lived. I once half slept through a city council meeting in Rancho Mirage that I was covering because the agenda was so dull. I perked up when the owner of a Chinese restaurant complained the ordinance the council was about to adopt would force her to take her restaurant sign down. It turned out that the dull measure was a law that would force all businesses to take down their signs and replace them with a standardized design. That included the landmark pink neon elephant that had long graced the Elephant Car Wash at the entrance to the city; no sign would be grandfathered in. The language of the agenda kept me from seeing that one coming, and I'm a wordsmith with a masters degree from an Ivy League school.
Ellinwood and I aren't the only ones concerned about this problem. Back in 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act. In more than 900 words it ordered that "each agency shall use plain writing in every covered document of the agency that the agency issues or substantially revises."
He was following in the steps of Al Gore, who, as vice president under Clinton, created the No Gobbleygook Awards, which went to government agencies that managed to produce documents the average person could understand. What sets a democracy apart from an oligarchy is that in an oligarchy, a select group of people maintain power, in part, because only they have access to information.
In a talk on the Humboldt State University campus Sunday, political activist and TV commentator Van Jones said that if you want a mass movement to support your public policy, you need to give legislative proposals titles that are cool sounding and easy to understand. I remember how brilliantly that tactic worked in 1994, when California voters overwhelmingly passed an unconstitutional anti-immigration referendum called Save Our State.
As a journalist, I love incomprehensible government language. Great stories come when you zero in on language no ordinary person could understand and find someone who can translate it. Buried under bureaucratic terminology are stories of people forced out of homes, delayed maintenance of crucial levee systems that lead to flood disasters and drinking water systems drawing from filthy rivers.
The reason we have a free press in this country is that our Founding Fathers understood that you can't have a government of the people and by the people if those people aren't educated on what their government does. They protected the press with the First Amendment and helped it flourish through a low-cost postal service so the press could help educate that public.
But we live in dangerous times. Our press isn't so healthy. When I was a young reporter, I had a whole day to prepare for a government meeting. That gave me time to read agendas and call people who could help me understand what I couldn't on my own. Reporters now have multiple stories they need to cover and are expected to write and report on events as they happen. This means even reporters who are fully awake at government meetings might miss some important context. They will cover what they can quickly understand and leave what they can't to others.
The journalism industry might never get back to the state it was in when I entered the profession. And if that is the case, we, the public, are going to have to step up as our own watchdogs if we don't want our cities to enact boneheaded laws that pinch pennies from public infrastructure or force every business in town to take down its sign.
And so our government leaders — the people we elect to represent us — must decide their role. Is it to hide important things from the public to avoid debate or to invite public discussion on difficult tasks?
The other question our government leaders must ask themselves is this: Do you represent everyone or only the highly educated?
In a workshop I once attended, author Amy Tan said that when she writes, she pictures her mother, who spoke English as a second language. She would never want to be a writer whose books her mother couldn't read. I took that to heart. I try to keep my Fancy Nancy words out of my writing because I don't want to turn away readers for whom English is a second language, or those who lack a high school diploma. Writing simply isn't easy. I track it using the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. This column clocked in at ninth grade level. I keep trying to lower it because Plain Jane reaches way more people than Fancy Nancy does.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. Her favorite writing form is haiku.