Wilbers: American poet runs afoul of plain English guidelines

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 30, 2012 - 5:45 PM

I hold the door for a white-haired gentleman.

"Whose woods these are I do not think I do not know," he says. His bushy eyebrows highlight a face lined with kindness.

"Come again?" I say.

"Whose woods these are I do not think I do not know."

"Forgive me, sir," I say, "but according to chapter six in 'A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents,' it's better to express yourself in the positive. 'Whose woods these are I think I know' would be more concise and easier to understand. Prefer the positive to the negative."

He squints at me as though he has lost his place in the glaring sun.

"For example," I say, rather than 'Persons other than the primary beneficiary may not receive these dividends,' write 'Only the primary beneficiary may receive these dividends.' Can you hear the difference?"

"There must be some mistake," he says. "I'm quite certain his harness bells were given a shake."

"Great example," I say. "'Use the active voice with strong verbs' is also one of the nine recommendations in the handbook."

"But shake is a strong verb," he says, "and it rhymes with mistake. Surely you understand the beauty of rhyme. Expressing yourself without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down."

"I've heard the argument," I say, "but you can have both rhyme and the active voice: 'He gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake.' See?"

"And you think that version better?"

"Incomparably," I say. "Just remember: In the active voice, the subject does the acting; in this case he, or your little horse, does the shaking. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action, as in 'his harness bells were given a shake.'"

"I see."

"The active voice is generally shorter and more emphatic. For example, compare 'The foregoing Fee Table is intended to assist investors in understanding the costs and expenses that a shareholder in the Fund will bear directly or indirectly' with 'This table describes the fees and expenses you may pay if you buy and hold shares of the fund.' See how much better the active voice is?"

"I do," he says, "but I have promises to..."

"Now you're getting the idea. The SEC's third recommendation is, 'Try personal pronouns.' To my ear, 'but I have promises to keep' has so much more life and heart than 'Notwithstanding, there are certain obligations that must be met.' Likewise, compare 'The volatility of the market should be taken under consideration by short-term investors in the selection and purchase of stocks' with 'If you are a short-term investor, you should consider the volatility of the market when you select which stocks to purchase.' Sounds more real with the personal pronouns, doesn't it?"

"But I really do have promises to keep," he says, "and miles to go before I..."

"Well, I'll let you go, but if you'd like to do some exercises based on all nine plain English guidelines, google wilbers sec."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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