The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is committed to communicating with the American people in plain, easy-to-follow language. We understand that people cannot comply with a safety bulletin that is too dense and technical to understand, or offer comments on a proposed regulation that is written with too much jargon for a layman to follow.
In accordance with our obligations under the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-274), we have taken a number of steps to ensure that documents produced by DOT are written in plain language.
Carol Darr, Director of the Office of the Executive Secretariat, serves as DOT’s Senior Official for Plain Language. Each of DOT’s nine Operating Administrations, as well as the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, has designated a point of contact for plain language matters (See Appendix A). We have a plain language page on our Web site, which is linked from the DOT homepage.
Communication in Plain Language
The Department has several measures in place to ensure that documents we produce are easily understandable. The Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), which maintains www.dot.gov, employs a plain language coordinator and a usability expert who helps the Department prepare Web pages that are written in plain language and designed in ways that make them usable to the public.
The OCIO has also prepared a “DOT.GOV Web Content Style Guide” that emphasizes Plain Language principles in both design and content. For instance, it offers writers alternatives for common mistakes, such as substituting “about” for “pertaining to” and “under” for “in accordance with.” On the design side, it explains how to use headers, keywords, and other tools to make pages easy to use.
The Department continues to review documents for plain language before publishing them. For example, the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Office of the General Counsel offers consumers advice on their rights and filing complaints in plain, easy-to-understand language. The Web site of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities (a joint effort of DOT, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency) is another clearly written and well-designed site.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has taken steps to ensure that its letters to Congress, the public, railroad industry and labor union representatives, and other external stakeholders are prepared in plain language. Subject matter experts, lawyers, public affairs representatives, and plain language liaisons from FRA revised many of its template letters to be clearer and more concise. The FRA’s senior leadership has strongly encouraged the use of Plain Language in its correspondence to internal and external stakeholders. For several months, the majority of FRA’s outgoing letters underwent thorough review by plain language liaisons, and feedback was provided to the authors and editors to rewrite or reformat the text for clarity.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been revising its Web materials for consumers to make sure they are clear and easy to understand. The first major section of NHTSA’s site to be revised was Parents’ Central (safecar.gov/parents), which provides tips on keeping kids safe around cars. Staff from NHTSA revised the entirety of the site’s content to make it more readable. The NHTSA has also begun to use Web metrics to review the search terms that people use when searching its Web site. They use this information to tailor their presentation of information to the language that consumers use.
The NHTSA is taking steps to present complex data in more readable ways. They launched a new monthly publication, “Safety In Numbers,” that takes complex data and breaks it into short topics. Each issue takes a significant bit of data and explains it, and provides advocates with best practices and tips to help improve their communities. The NHTSA has also placed a greater emphasis on using infographics to summarize data in a clear, easy-to-understand way.
The Department ran a series of articles on plain language for our internal Web site, DOTnet. The first article, which introduced the basics of plain language and reminded employees of the plain language contact for their office, ran March 26, 2013. Each article covered a single topic, such as the correct use of the verb “comprise,” the correct punctuation of dates, and how to present complex information with an “if...then” table. These articles helped to educate DOT’s employees and raise the profile of plain language Departmentwide. Three of these articles are attached as Appendix B.
Good writing does not develop spontaneously. Training, practice, and regular feedback are key to learning to communicate effectively. With that in mind, we have taken several steps to provide training and other resources to DOT employees to assist them in improving their writing skills.
All current DOT employees completed an online training module developed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) between April and July of 2013, as will new employees going forward. The roughly hour-long course explains the importance of plain language and introduces employees to basic concepts, including the importance of using active rather than passive voice, using short sentences and paragraphs, and structuring documents for easier understanding. The course is available for review on the FAA’s Plain Language site.
An hour-long online training is a good start, but we will need further effort, especially for those who regularly draft documents aimed at the public. The Office of the Executive Secretariat held a workshop with drafters of documents throughout the Department on April 30, 2013, to discuss plain language and help improve the quality of documents that we prepare for the Secretary to sign.
Other offices within DOT have already provided training for employees who regularly prepare documents for the public. For instance, writer-editors from FRA attended training at the Center for Plain Language in April 2014.
The Department maintains resources for drafters on its plain language Web page. Employees now have access to several tools, including a guide to preparing readable documents called “Writing User-Friendly Documents: A Handbook for U.S. Department of Transportation Drafters” and checklists for reviewing documents and Web pages.
Other offices within DOT also have measures in place to ensure that they produce accurate and readable documents for the public. The FTA’s Office of Communications and Congressional Affairs conducts plain language reviews of all documents requiring their approval. These include press statements, speeches, FTA’s external and internal Web sites, testimony, briefing papers, and correspondence.
Additionally, FTA’s Deputy Chief Counsel ensures that attorneys review all circulars, Federal Register notices, rulemakings, and other legal documents for plain language before publication. In particular, attorneys review press releases and other documents to make sure they are clear and concise, and that they avoid overusing legal jargon. The Office of Chief Counsel revised its Master Agreement and Certifications and Assurances for grantees with plain language in mind, and released advisory circulars on several topics that were thoroughly reviewed for plain language. These include circulars on Environmental Justice and Title VI, as well as an apportionments notice with guidance regarding the implementation of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).
The FHWA has focused on plain language for many years to ensure that all of its communications are clear and understandable. The FHWA Executive Secretariat and publications office ensure that plain language is used in all correspondence and communications. The FHWA style guide, in use since 2008, places a strong emphasis on the use of plain language.
The FHWA Office of the Chief Counsel reviews regulations, guidance, and other legal documents for clear and concise language. For example, the Office of the Chief Counsel has reviewed all guidance implementing MAP-21 for compliance with the Plain Language Act of 2010 among other applicable statutes.
The Office of Chief Counsel in MARAD reviews all Federal Register Notices for use of plain language. Similarly, FAA includes a thorough plain language review in its process for approving documents.
U.S. Department of Transportation
Plain Language Contacts
Senior Plain Language Official
Carol Darr, Director, Office of the Executive Secretariat
Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Highway Administration
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
Federal Railroad Administration
Federal Transit Administration
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Office of the Secretary of Transportation
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
Research and Innovative Technology Administration
Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation
Plain Language, it's harder than it looks
By Todd Solomon
Posted: March 26, 2013
Plain language is with us all of the time – in conversation, in emails, on the web – because it’s the everyday language we speak. One of the responsibilities of all DOT professionals is to make sure that plain language is also part of the way the Department communicates. That means using a style and vocabulary your audience can understand the first time they read it.
As Carol Darr, Director of the Office of the Executive Secretariat and the Department’s Senior Plain Language Official, says, “If we’re trying to convey a safety message, it doesn’t do the public any good if we bury the important information in a pile of government techno-speak. We have an obligation to our customers – and to each other – to write and speak as clearly as possible.”
That’s why Darr’s office has published a helpful set of plain language materials on the DOT website. The set includes tools like a handbook for Writing User-Friendly Documents. The Executive Secretariat has also added a Plain Language Checklist as well as a Checklist for Creating New Web Content.
Francisco Reinoso, Associate Director for IT Strategy and Technology Projects, believes the Web Content checklist is a must-read. “The web is a public space, so we need to be inclusive,” says Reinoso. “Making things easy to understand is as important as making them easy to find. If our content confuses readers, or slows them down, it affects our ability to deliver valuable services.”
But you won’t find the most useful plain language resource on the web; it’s the Plain Language point of contact in your Operating Administration. As Darr says, “These are the people to go to if you have a plain language question – they can point you to valuable resources or even help you arrange a training session for your office.”
Here’s one last piece of advice: If you’re writing in Microsoft Word, you can set the Spelling and Grammar options to “Show Readability Statistics.” And in case you’re wondering, this article is rated at 11.7. That means it’s readable by someone with a high school education.
Want to learn more about plain language? Visit www.dot.gov/open/plain-language. And look for future DOTNet articles with tips, tricks, and strategies for improving readability in your writing.
By Michael C. Stettes
Seems like everyone has a book, blog, or column proclaiming to know the secrets to dating success. Not me. I’m simply trying to learn how to write the day, month, and the year properly.
I’ve found the answers, but to save you from this all-too-common frustration, here’s what I’ve learned.
People are understandably unsure of what to do when they need to write the date. They’ve seen it in many different formats, and there are many acceptable ways of doing it. Add to this the fact that the punctuation can get a bit confusing. So let’s break it down.
The date is March 1, 2013.
This is exactly right.
March 1, 2013, is the first day of the third month of the year.
This is correct. That comma after the year may look strange to you, and some style guides omit it, but it is the style preferred by the Government Printing Office.
However, no comma is necessary after the year if you’re simply writing the month and year, such as:
March 2013 will be an excellent month.
Here is one of the most common mistakes:
We are going to meet on March 1st.
This is incorrect. You would never write “Grade 8th” would you? Similarly, it is incorrect to write “March 1st.” Here are the correct alternatives:
We are going to meet on March 1.
We are going to meet on the 1st of March.
We are going to meet on March the 1st.
Please note that, as one of those particular quirks of the English language, while it is correct to write “March 1,” it would still be spoken aloud as “March 1st.” Good luck in all your dating endeavors!
The Demise of Comprise
By Michael C. Stettes
The word “comprise” has had to put up with a lot in recent years. It’s often used incorrectly, and even then, it’s not allowed to do its job without being shackled to that little moocher of a preposition, “of.” It’s taken its licks, but we’re here to ease its burden and let it get back to doing the job it was born to do.
Let’s start with these two facts:
The whole comprises its parts.
The parts compose the whole.
In context, check out these examples:
The pizza comprises dough, sauce, and cheese.
Dough, sauce, and cheese compose the pizza.
So when using the verb “comprise,” the whole always is placed first in the sentence before the parts. If you can substitute the phrase “is made up of,” you are probably using “comprise” correctly.
When using the verb “compose,” the parts come first before the whole.
But what if you’re using the phrase “is composed of”? Well, in that case, it’s fine to say something like,
The pizza is composed of dough, sauce, and cheese.
However, if you ever write the phrase “comprised of,” delete it as fast as you can! It is always incorrect. Always, always, always. No such beast should exist, Dr. Frankenstein; the townspeople are forming a posse.
The preceding words compose this article. This articles comprises (or is composed of) the preceding words.