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A Case Study in Governmentese—Guns, NBC, and the D.C. Police -
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A Case Study in Governmentese—Guns, NBC, and the D.C. Police

gunsI’ve written here and at Lawyerist about why it’s important for lawyers to write simply, clearly, and directly.

But lawyers aren’t the only supposedly professional writers who prefer obscure, passive prose to simple, active prose.

Too often, for example, government officials suffer from their own unique -ese: governmentese (a/k/a officialese).

Consider this press release from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which is investigating whether NBC’s David Gregory violated D.C.’s gun laws by brandishing a high-capacity magazine on Meet the Press:

NBC contacted [the D.C. Police Department] inquiring if they could utilize a high capacity magazine for their segment,” Gwendolyn Crump, a police spokeswoman, said in an email. “NBC was informed that possession of a high capacity magazine is not permissible and their request was denied. This matter is currently being investigated.

The statement contains some of the usual suspects found in obscure writing: inquiring for asking, utilize for use, and informed for told. The department also wrote the statement in the passive voice, incorrectly used the plural pronouns they and their instead of the singular pronouns it and its when referring to NBC, and failed to hyphenate the phrasal adjective high-capacity magazine.

No doubt, the department was afraid that something like the following would be too simple, direct, and useful for an “official” statement:

NBC asked us whether it could use a high-capacity magazine during Meet the Press. We told NBC that it would violate D.C.’s gun laws if it used the magazine. We are investigating why NBC ignored our directive.

Granted, it’s nothing new for government officials to use obscure, puffed-up prose to communicate with the public. In the 1940s, for example, Sir Ernest Gowers wrote a book for British government officials about how to better communicate with the public. His advice: “Be Short, Be Simple, Be Human.”

So here’s my advice to the D.C. Police Department: In the future, get to the point, as simply and directly as possible. And don’t worry about ruffling feathers. We’re all adults.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wmode/3374076670/)

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