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Reporter Proposes Plain Language Alert System

By Susan Persons

To the delight and amusement of all who attended the second annual Plain Language Award Ceremony recently, Susan Dentzer, health correspondent for the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, proposed a color-coded system that would forewarn readers of questionable language:

Blue Alert would announce hifalutin' language, soaring over everybody's head, like the sky.

Black would warn of stultifying prose, such as an IRS memo, where you can't see your way to the end of the tunnel.

Brown would be smoggy and dense.

Purple would suggest too many ruffles and flourishes, as in purple prose.

All Clear is utterly transparent, like a cool mountain stream.

Dentzer, guest speaker for the event, joined NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein as she hosted a ceremony honoring more than 100 plain language award recipients. "The mission of NIH is to conduct and support research that will lead to better health for all Americans. But if we are to succeed in this, we must communicate in ways that are clear, concise and to the point," said Kirschstein. "Never has that point been more clear than before our appropriations committees, where again and again we are asked about our effectiveness in communicating health messages to the public."

Reporter Susan Dentzer

No stranger to NIH, Dentzer is a natural advocate for plain language. "As a journalist, I love plain language, and when I see it, I embrace it like a dear friend. This is because, frankly, it makes my life a whole lot easier," she said. Dentzer gave several examples of how she must often translate scientific language into plain language before she can understand it herself, and then convey it to the public. While delivering a news report on cancer and hair loss, she noted, "Most traditional chemotherapy drugs that fight cancer by killing cells interfere with the normal mechanisms of cell division in hair follicles. This can result in hair loss." But her source for that information was a research abstract that read, "Most traditional cytologic anticancer agents ablate the rapidly dividing epithelium of the hair follicle, and induce alopecia, or hair loss."

Also joining in the celebration was Ann Agnew, HHS executive secretary, who brought a congratulatory message from Secretary Tommy Thompson. Agnew emphasized how important plain language is to the department, which processed over 28,000 documents since Jan. 1, 2001. "Our effectiveness as a department and as individual agencies is completely dependent on how we communicate with each other and our external audiences," she said.

"The Secretary is passionate about plain language," Agnew reported. She then quoted Thompson: "The information we provide can literally make the difference between life and death for our fellow Americans, and your commitment to clarity and accuracy helps us achieve that essential goal."

The next submission deadline for a plain language award is Sept. 20, 2002. See for more information about NIH's plain language initiative and the nomination process.

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