“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.”
With those words in a celebrated memo written shortly after he became chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, Alfred E. Kahn urged the lawyers and economists on his staff to express themselves more clearly when drafting board rulings and letters for his signature.
“Every time you’re tempted to use ‘herein’ or ‘hereinabout’ or ‘hereinunder’ or, similarly, ‘therein,’ thereinabove’ or ‘thereinunder,” and the corresponding variants,” he continued, “try ‘here’ or ‘there’ or ‘above’ or ‘below,’ and see if it doesn’t make just as much sense.”
“The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing,” Mr. Kahn’s memo to his Civil Aeronautics Board staff continued. “Typically its purpose is to conceal information — one is less likely to be jailed if one says, ‘He was hit by a stone,’ than if he says, ‘I hit him with a stone,’” he wrote, adding that “The active voice is far more forthright, direct, humane.”