I have often wondered why my income-tax consultant speaks about the “previous year” when he is actually referring to the current year. He says: “Advance tax has to be paid in September, December and March of the previous year.” In another context, he asks me to consider the “three previous years preceding the previous year.” He has used this phrase while defining the term RNOR, resident but not ordinarily resident. This is an amorphous, murky entity that is suspended between two worlds. This period of suspended existence used to last nine years, until a Gujarat high court order clipped seven years out of it. But when I seek clarifications on special situations faced by NRIs or non-resident Indians and RNORs, with realty interests in two countries, and tax obligations in more than one country, I get different answers from the experts. Like the blind men who went searching for the elephant, they see the same object differently.
Today, my tax advisers speak in acronyms. PAN, of course, is important; but then came MIN, MAPIN and WAPIN. Today, it is KYC (you thought it was Kentucky Young Chicken, didn’t you?). This acronym is linked to PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act). There was a time when PMLA to me stood for Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, the most prestigious linguists’ group in the academic world.
I plead guilty to a little money laundering myself. That was when somebody fobbed off on me at dusk, deceiving my ageing eyes, a soiled, tattered, dog-eared hundred-rupee note.
I exercised my laundering skills using detergent, scissors, Sellotape and a pressing iron. The note then looked as good as fresh issue from the Nashik security press.
But acronyms have come to stay; and so have many technical terms that belong to particular disciplines. But when you pass from words to sentences, there can be chaos.
A judge from Scotland sent this gem from a 1972 ruling to the editors of the Guinness Book of World Records: “In the Nuts (Ungrounded) (Other than Groundnuts) Order, the expression Nuts shall have reference to such Nuts, other than Groundnuts, as would, but for this amending order, not qualify as Nuts (Ungrounded) (Other than groundnuts) by reason of their being Nuts (Ungrounded).” I spent half an hour grappling with the sentence and still couldn’t decipher its meaning.
It is general practice in legal drafting to use a single complete sentence with clauses or phrases to cover all the necessary ifs and buts, conditions and concessions. Law practitioners know what to look for and where to look for it. But common people find these sentences incomprehensible.
Draft resolutions presented at the AGMs (annual general meetings) of business houses are examples of such sentences. Shareholders struggle to unravel the twists and knots in the sentence, and then turn to the notes on the items, which the companies mercifully provide, to understand the content of the resolutions.
Former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt was a stickler for clear writing. He once read out to a press meet an order issued in Washington, which ran, “Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-federal buildings occupied by the federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.” After joking about people who had “internal illumination”, Roosevelt asked his press secretary to have the letter rewritten: “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going, to put something across the windows.”
Customer advocacy groups have been demanding that documents produced by government departments should be free from the clutter of “bureaucratese” and be easy to read and understand. Successive American presidents have continued to stress the need to frame federal regulations in jargon-free language. After Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter gave his support to the plain writing movement, not only as a matter of courtesy to the reader, but also as a step towards cost-effectiveness. Research institutes and design centres were invited to join the effort to redesign public documents.
In many countries there is a movement to write income-tax laws in plain language. In 1990, Nanabhoy Palkhivala wrote: “Today the Income-tax Act, 1961, is a national disgrace.” More than 500 sections and around 5,000 amendments make the Act one of the most convoluted documents in legal history. Even simple provisions arerepeatedly amended. But attempts to promote plain language in legal drafting have so far been half-hearted and unfocused.
Today, the realization that taxpayers have a right to clear and simple communication from the government is helping strengthen the movement worldwide for plain language in official communication.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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