Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Plain language and the military

One of the first actions that Charlie Crist took upon taking office as the Governor of Florida was to sign an Executive Order that established his Plain Language Initiative. Acronyms and legalese were ordered to be stripped from public documents. In the world of emergency management, where I work, we were particularly prone to acronyms. As we now write new procedures we take extra care to ensure that no offending acronym slips into a document through force of habit.

Although these offending terms are ruthlessly excised from all written materials they remain a part of our vocal communication. Thus, the acronyms are quarantined in a special section in each document so that the newly arrived to the emergency operations center can translate the speech of the natives. I even made two posters listing the most common acronyms and placed them prominently in my work room at the emergency operations center so that the newbies could understand what we are saying.

Much has been written of the jargon studded language of the military. The term "pentagonese" was even coined to describe this disease but the affliction is not confined to the United States military. When I was assigned to the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium at the beginning of the Bosnia operation I was sent to attend a staff meeting. The SHAPE staff is composed of representatives from all the NATO countries. I was the first to enter the meeting room and saw that, in typical military fashion, place cards had been set in front of each chair to indicate which organization in SHAPE the occupant of that chair represented. I examined each of the twenty two place cards in the room and only recognized the one for my own organization. The language of the headquarters was English but the many terms used, and which I had to learn, were unique to the organization.

I found that in the military the closer one gets to the common soldier the plainer the language. The staff officers at division headquarters speak a special jargon but the sergeant's instructions to the private are in clear English. At the front line the Army puts a premium on clear, simple instructions. In combat, or even in exercises, miscommunication can kill.

Plain language can and does reside in the military. One simply has to look for it in the right place.