Saturday, July 7, 2012

I Sentence You To 212 Words

One thing that gets perpetually brought up as a complaint about government is that the legislation put out by it is just too darned hard to make sense of. Individual bills get called out for perceived excessive length and obtuseness all the time, the tax code being a perennial favorite target. Someone is almost bound to tout a proposal that all legislation be given some sort of limit. Two pages, for instance.

There's a tradeoff to that, though. Legislation is meant to do very specific things. Poor wording, corner-cutting language, can easily lead to unintended consequences. You all know the fictional stories of people who find a genie, wish for, oh, say, "a ton of money", and then end up getting flattened by an anvil made of dollar bills. Legislation is essentially that in a real-life setting. Loopholes, exceptions, and unexpected prohibitions and permissions await the constituents of anyone that doesn't do the job right.

In practice, for one recent example, one could point to the Nebraska 'safe haven' law passed in 2008 offering parents who had just given birth, but could not support the child, the chance to drop the child off at a hospital, no questions asked. The law, poorly written, failed to include an age limit, leading to parents from all over the country descending on Nebraska to drop off teenagers. 35 non-infant children were dumped in Nebraska before the state legislature could get back to the chamber and write in a 30-day limit.

"Please don't bring your teenager to Nebraska," governor Dave Heineman found himself saying.

But today let's talk about the actual writing act, as opposed to the end result.

In March 1958, Senator Arthur Vivian Watkins of Utah was reading through the instructions for filing one's 1040 tax return for 1957. As he was doing so, on page 8, under 'Additional Charge for Underpayment of Estimated Tax', he came across a sentence that clocked in at 212 words. (On MS Word, it gets counted at 218, but 212 was the operating number for this story.)

You can't really get away with shirking on a section like 'here's what happens if you don't pay all your taxes'. That part's kind of important. Just tossing that out there.

This is the sentence, which you can find here in a PDF file.

"The charge with respect to any underpayment of any installment is mandatory and will be made unless the total amount of all payments of estimated tax made on or before the last date prescribed for the payment of such installment equals or exceeds whichever of the following is the lesser-

(a) The amount which would have been required to be paid on or before such date if the estimated tax were whichever of the following is the least-

(1) The tax shown on your return for the previous year (if your return for such year showed a liability for tax and covered a taxable year of 12 months), or

(2) A tax computed by using the previous year's income with the current year's rates and exemptions, or

(3) 70 percent (66 2/3 percent in the case of farmers) of a tax computed by projecting to the end of the year the income received from the beginning of the year up to the beginning of the month of the installment payment; OR

(b) An amount equal to 90 percent of the tax computed, at the rates applicable to the taxable year, on the basis of the actual taxable income for the months in the taxable year ending before the month in which the installment is required to be paid."

Pretty dense, right? Watkins thought so. He passed it around to some of his Senate colleagues; they thought so, too. In fact, he thought so to the extent that he put together a contest. He challenged average Americans to rewrite that sentence, in 300 words or less (and, please, more than one sentence), in such a way that the result was easier to read and the meaning of the sentence unchanged. The winner, as judged by a panel of experts from New York University's School of Commerce, would get a Bible and a copy of a book called Simplified English, which Watkins suggested the winner autograph and send along to then-IRS commissioner Russell Harrington. NYU kicked in a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In addition, from the accounts of the story, the reveal of the winner was to be televised as the culmination of a program on simplified language.

Somewhere between 600 and 700 people tried their hand at rewriting the sentence. (About half were considered serious efforts at the task. No word on what the other half consisted of, but there was likely much angry ranting disguised as contest entries.) If you'd like to give it a shot, the sentence is right there and the context is a click away. Feel free to take a crack at it. The winner of the contest was Page A. Mead, a sales engineer from Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. But in truth, there was no winner.

Because nobody could pull it off. Not even the panel could do it. The best the panel could do was inserting the occasional period into what was already there.

Mead's entry may have won the contest, but it still didn't meet the essential goal of simplifying the sentence without changing the meaning. He made five grammatical errors in his rewrite, three of which changed the meaning. However, he was given kudos by the panel moderator just for being able to understand the thing.

The panel came to the end conclusion: "Brevity is not necessarily a virtue in official documents, but precision is. The taxpayer is responsible whether he understands it or not."

And that was a contest asking you to convert a single 212-word sentence into several sentences that could be up to 300 words. It permitted you to add length to the text if that's what it took to understand it better while keeping the meaning intact. It still could not be done.

What do you think your odds are of achieving such a result by condensing a gigantic bill to two pages?

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