Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Citywatch

By Elizabeth GibsonThe Daily Northwestern

Words matter. A fiery speech can rouse a revolution and sweet lyrics can soften the soul. Confusing words, on the other hand, confuse readers.

City documents seem to attract jargon and awkward language more than most forms of writing, and every year the Evanston City Budget seems to exemplify the problem.

The document introduces itself by saying, “Transmitted herewithin is the Proposed Budget.”

Not much is referred to as “transmitted herewithin” these days. People just say, “Here it is.”

The city has shown signs of indirect progress in recent years, but there’s room for improvement.

After her first budget proposal a year ago, City Manager Julia Carroll received a few pointers to make the reading less challenging for Evanston City Council members. When aldermen have concerns about the city’s writing style, it doesn’t bode well for the average resident.

The latest budget process does show signs of improvement that prove practice and effort can affect writing. The letter introducing the budget this year is clearer. A preliminary press release also helped outline budget basics, saving residents with limited interest in the budget from wading through the 558-page computer file. But the need for clarification alone demonstrates that the budget isn’t particularly easy to browse.

When words fall into a tangle, understanding them is as much an art as penning them. After all, Northwestern devotes whole departments to symantics and literary interpretation.

It’s tragic when an Evanston resident pulls together the courage to stand before the City Council and the audience in the City Council Chamber with a prepared speech, only to have someone point out that the resident completely misinterpreted an ordinance.

In short, a government that wants to promote productive discussion needs accessible language.

At length, a municipality, which has the desire to facilitate the active discussion among residents who habitate in Evanston, should be compelled to encourage the facilitation of rhetoric conducive to understanding.

Evanston isn’t alone. Cities as well as corporations across the country rely on acronyms and buzzwords that sometimes don’t even translate from department to department within a bureaucracy.

Organizations and city councils have started trying to reform their writing style. For instance, judges in California are required to give jurors instructions in layman’s terms.

It’s not hard to see why. The composition of city records is formulaic, and not everyone has the neccessary bachelor’s in the jargon arts to figure out what the city wants to say.

While residents probably don’t need to know what a “modified accural basis” means, a “mixed-use development” can say something about their neighborhood.

Acronyms and vocabulary in areas such as planning and zoning can trip up concerned homeowners, who come to the city without the same legal staffs developers can turn to for translations.

Cities also use words such as “shall” in documents simply because that is the way it’s written for governments. Perhaps it could be done differently.

Excess words also bog down city texts. For instance, in the budget proposal last year: “… various city departments identified areas where additional personnel and/or programs would enhance their operations.”

It’s just as helpful to say, “Departments said more money would improve their work.”

It takes more work to write a short, clean text, but it’s many times easier to read.

It might require training to make writing simpler, but it would make budgets, ordinances and other documents easier to read in the long run.

Worrying about words might seem trivial, but we live in a civization that runs on them.

Managing the city deficit, of course, comes first.

City Editor Elizabeth Gibson is a Medill junior. She can be reached at [email protected].

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