Alfred Kahn's brave 1977 bid for clear corporate prose

The recently deceased (2010) Alfred Kahn was an economist and academic who was beloved for his notorious memo on clear corporate communications. Kahn wrote this while serving as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, sending it around to his staff and fellow board members. He implored them to abandon phrases like "we deem it inappropriate" and to try out other such pomposities on their children to see if they passed the giggle test. He also railed against "data" as singular, the overuse of the passive voice, and the use "herein," "hereunder," "heretofore" and other archaic flourishes.
Early on in my career someone returned a paper I had written along with a copy of what was known as "the Kahn memo" which he had circulated in 1977 to his colleagues at the Civil Aeronautics Board. In it, Kahn railed against the artificial and hyper-legal language favored by bureaucrats and urged his employees to use "straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose." The key word here is "humane." It was our duty as public servants to write clearly, yes, but also with compassion and sympathy for our readers. Every now and then when I found myself lazily falling back on horrible bureaucratic gobbledygook, I could snap out of it by rereading Kahn's memo.
Alfred Kahn, 1917-2010 by Stacey Harwood (via Beth Pratt)


  1. Mr. Kahn helped get the ball rolling. Fifteen years later, the Clinton-era Plain Language initiative took force under two Executive Orders. It was recently reinforced by the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

    >>> Please COMPLAIN whenever you encounter government gobbledegook.

    You’ll find many useful web and print writing tools at

  2. These guys are still trying but it’s an uphill battle.
    I once worked for an Insurance company and was tasked with simplifying policy extras (for internal use only). I managed to get 6 booklets down to one A4 page and received much praise from superiors for what was, even for one with limited knowledge, blindingly obvious, even if it was new to them.
    No customers ever received this information, even though our company was a participant in the Campaign for Plain English. Gobbledegook is an additional defensive layer. Kafka would get it.
    I no longer work for that company.

  3. The science world should also do this.
    The forced use of the passive voice is one thing that really grates on my nerves. It’s an attempt at showing some kind of dispassionate intellectualism that somehow should make the document more trustworthy. The fact that it really only involves removing any references to I or we, and replacing it with phrases like “that suggests” which always implies that the data is generating these results without human intervention… bs!

    Reading scientific articles can be a pain in the ass due to the authors replacing human language with gobbledegook, sometimes on purpose to somehow elevate the standard of theory through obfuscation of language leading to a “wow, this is so complicated I can hardly understand it. It MUST be really clever then!” type of effect instead of actually transmitting information and knowledge to the reader.

  4. In the aerospace industry, there is a standard called “ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English”. Confusing aircraft maintenance instructions kill people. Clear, easy-to-understand instructions save lives. ASD-STE100 is full of useful tips for making your documentation clear and understandable.

    Always use the active voice. Do not say “The bolt is TO BE placed in the hole”. Say “Put the bolt in the hole”.

    If a sentence has more than 20 words, make it shorter. It does not count if you leave out articles such as “a” and “the” to make it shorter.

  5. Amusing. Back in the early 70’s my father (a NASA research pilot) was a member of a “Presidential Commission” on crew requirements for new jets. When it was over, he told me he thought his greatest accomplishment was keeping the total report length down to 35 pages, apparently a record.

  6. Somewhere there’s an exasperated FDR rewrite of a lengthy memo about White House heating problems. It reads, iirc, ”Open the windows when it’s hot, close them when it is cold.”

  7. I don’t get it. Dude writes a convoluted memo taking way to long to say I don’t like convoluted prose! Little of the kettle to the pot going on there.

  8. Damn. Nine comments and no mention of Strunk & White or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” I was feelin’ a lot younger just a few minutes ago…

  9. In my day job working on air traffic control systems there is a guy at one customer site who writes bug reports like this.

  10. Bullfighter.
    Alas, it doesn’t work so well with Win7 or Office 2007. XP, it’s a good thing. One of the marketing geniuses in our office is continually ticked at me because his memos, run though the Bullfighter add-on, consistently rate him as “qualifed for government work.”

  11. Stunk and White usually works to sort out an overblown writing style. But taken to extremes your writing becomes really terse.
    The handmaiden to the sort of expressions mentioned is the document loaded with jargon. It conveys little meaning but convinces your peers that you know the lingo.
    Then there is the math accompanying an article. Always made me take a deep breath. Then a friend who was frequently published opened my eyes by saying, “Oh, didn’t you know? The math is all ghosted. The author rarely does it.”

    1. The difficulty is differentiating between meaningless jargon and actual technical language. Strunk & White are good in banishing the third person passive voice, the great curse of scientific writing, but frankley I know too many medical professionals who think that papers can only be written in the “experiment was done” voice. There are also fads in technical language just like in teen-age slang. Thirty years ago I knew a lot of MDS who always called centimeters “Sontimeters”.

      1. Thirty years ago I knew a lot of MDS who always called centimeters “Sontimeters”.

        And exenteration was ex-OHN-teration. At which point, I’d squeal, “Oooh, when did we become French?”

  12. Thanks for this. I write corporate copy daily within quite a liberal organisation, and it’s still an uphill struggle.

    Don’t ask me why, but people in positions of authority seem to be continuously ‘delighted’. Even when I’ve deliberately phrased copy to exclude the possibility of using that dreadful word, it’s come back rephrased, with a big fat ‘delighted’ shoved in there.

    “We are delighted to be working with…” “I am delighted to announce…” It must be some sort of mental affliction that comes with senior managerial positions. Watch out for it in the next press release you read. Everyone’s delighted.

    1. Or excited. If “delighted” is first, “excited” cannot be far behind. Librarians, especially, are curiously excitable. Who knew?

  13. I’m not sure that encouraging everyone to write like Diana Moon Glampers is a good thing.

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