What do you think of these words?

"—a sudden, unauthorized descent to an altitude below that of the runway."

They describe an airplane crash and appear exactly as you see them in an old, official report. What happens when our customers and others who depend on those reports read that kind of stuff? They get confused and it's harder for them to follow our instructions.

That's why the Federal Plain Language Law of 2010 compels all federal departments to follow the Federal Plain Language Guidelines in all their work. But what if you don't know what's in those guidelines or how to identify smothered verbs, pronouns and passive-voice constructions? To explore an answer, let's look at part of a typical aviation inspection report:

"Aircraft N222Y had a discrepancy found on the walk around for evidence of a lightning strike on the trailing edge of the right hand stabilizer. Aircraft was then inspected for special flight permit from Minneapolis (MSP) to Oklahoma (OKC). Maintenance Ferry Permit (SCM-12) could not be located to help determine what was accomplished to determine if the aircraft was safe for its intended flight."

To most inspectors, attorneys and executives, those look like normal, helpful words. They're not. They confuse readers. Why? Because there's four passive-voice constructions, no pronouns and problems some trained writers don't know about. (For the definition and an education about passive-voice constructions, see the earlier article in this series called "If you can't identify a passive voice construction, you might be dangerous."

For fun, let's see if you can identify the four passive voice constructions in that sample and talk about why you might be dangerous if you don't know these things:

–"was then inspected (doesn't say who inspected)"
–"could not be located (doesn't say who couldn't locate--is it the airline or the inspector?)"
–"was accomplished (by whom??)"
–"its intended flight (intended by the airline or the inspector?)"

If you've taken the FAA plain language course, then you know how pronouns kill passive voice constructions. If we add five pronouns (they, their, they, I and its) and kill the passive voices, a plain language version could read:

"The airline did not show that they completed or recorded a proper inspection on Aircraft N222Y after their walk-around inspection showed evidence of a lightning strike on the trailing edge of the right hand stabilizer. They did inspect the aircraft to get a special flight permit from Minneapolis (MSP) to Oklahoma (OKC). However, I could not locate the Maintenance Ferry Permit (SCM-12) to help determine what the airline did in that inspection to decide if the aircraft was safe for its intended flight."

Inspection reports like this affect safety programs and compliance. The words we use matter.

If you've got comments or questions about this, please contact:

Dr. Bruce V. Corsino
FAA Plain Language Program Manager
Phone: 202-493-4074
email: bruce.corsino@faa.gov