Official style has been normalized to evoke authority, expertise, and precision. This style has been used especially in the United States government within legislative documents such as bills, acts, vetoes, amendments, proposals, and laws. Official style is complex, jargonistic, bureaucratic, and usually impossible for the average adult to read. So why does our government choose this style in documents important to the lives of citizens? Is it necessary to use official style to avoid misinterpretation? In certain spheres of human activity, official style is used to confuse, distort ideas, or wrongfully persuade. In the case of law, official style clarifies for politicians while puzzling the general public. I chose to follow the use of official style in United States law, particularly the right to bear arms, and see how the official style has evolved and what it means for the average American citizen.
The original record of the American right to bear arms according to the Bill of Rights goes as follows:
“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
This one sentence leaves a lot up for interpretation, which many future politicians would take advantage of. To understand what was meant by this statement historical context must be taken into account. There has been a lot of debate between whether the right to “keep and bear arms” belongs only to state governments for maintenance of military force, or if it is the right for each citizen to own and use guns. According to David E. Vandrecoy, the Framers who wrote this amendment had an original intent to give citizens the right to be armed and “to be armed at a level equal to the government”. Simply put, this amendment was included in the Bill of Rights to prevent the new American government from becoming the tyrannical British government the Framers were escaping from. Official style could have been used when writing the Bill of Rights to specify exactly what was meant, but that would have taken away the poetic nature of the document. The Framers must have intended to simplify this so the citizens would understand and quickly agree; in turn creating the opportunity for future ambiguity in interpretation.
Every state legislature and national lawmaker has misinterpreted the second amendment. This might sound shocking- and I’m not making a biased political statement. If the second amendment had been interpreted how the Framers had intended, guns would be used solely for militia drills by the states. We would not have college students carrying guns around campus, intoxicated people couldn’t handle a gun in Missouri, and “Stand Your Ground” would not exist. Unlike the original Second Amendment the new laws offer no possibility for further interpretation, because they used official style. One example of this is Wisconsin’s recent Concealed Carry Rule. The Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level for this forty seven page document is grade nineteen, but the average adult in the United States reads at the seventh grade level. The average adult couldn’t even begin to understand this document! The document opens up with the following:
On October 25, 2011, DOJ adopted emergency rules relating to the implementation of DOJ’s statutory responsibilities under 2011 Wis. Act 35 regarding licenses authorizing persons to carry concealed weapons, the certification of firearm safety and training instructors, the recognition by Wisconsin of concealed carry licenses issued by other states, and concealed carry certification cards for qualified former federal law enforcement officers.
That was one sentence! The verbose within this passage alone creates a very official tone because it could easily be simplified to “On October 25, 2011, DOJ put into place the concealed carry rule”, excluding multiple clauses and all of the specifications. This is the introduction to the document, so one would expect it to be clear on what is to come. Even though it specifies what is included under the “emergency rule” it is not clear. It takes a while to get to the point, and in documents that many people will be reading it is essential to state the purpose right away. Of course this passage contains a bureaucratic tone since it is a government document, but couldn’t it be more relatable to the general public? The public are the people who need to understand and abide by these rules. This may sound like a contradiction but used this way law is used to confuse as well as clarify. The official style used in law documents clarifies specifications to lawmakers so they are unable to interpret the law differently or evolve it in the future without adding separate amendments. At the same time, law confuses the general public by adding additional clauses, rules, and repeating sentences that seem unnecessary. Most citizens wouldn’t take the time to read and pick apart a document that is twelve grade levels above their own reading ability, so they either blindly accept the law or blindly oppose it. We trust politicians to be able to understand the documents for us and make the important decisions.
Politicians, lawyers, or any person involved in government affairs might argue the official style is necessary when writing any government document. What they are writing will be written in history! They need it to look good and smart to reflect how good and smart of a leader they were. Within our founding government documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence it seems like they contain some official bureaucratic elements that if written today would be classified in the official style. Politicians of today strive for government documents to be consistent with this historical tone, but times change. When the Framers used official style it was actually how they talked to one another. It was easily understood by the masses because when read out loud it did not require translation. Oral communication has evolved (or regressed) and written communication should have stayed consistent with this evolution. If politicians of today truly wanted to emulate our forefathers they would make government documents more accessible to the public. The idea of democracy is a government made up of the people of a country, and if the people can’t read what their politicians are writing how can they play their part?
In Section 227.11(2)(a) of the Concealed Carry document official style is also especially apparent. This section of the document explains what “rule-making authority” is allowed or supposed to do. In section (a) the document states that “each agency may promulgate rules interpreting the provisions of any statute” which is a complex way of saying agencies are allowed to interpret the concealed carry rule. The document goes on to say “a rule is not valid if the rule exceeds the bounds of correct interpretation”. The writers of the document wanted to seem like there is some leeway for interpreting the concealed carry rule, but deeper within they make it near impossible to make any changes. This facade represents what politicians do to government documents: slipping in additions to undermine the surface intention. The document goes on to identify three sections of specifications about “statutory provisions” that further limit the possibility of interpretation. The complexity and length of describing these specifications show how the lawmakers made it near impossible to change or understand this rule any differently then what they originally intended.
If the Framers wrote in a more elaborate official style would these interpretations and modern laws have happened? One outcome of official style is eliminating the chance for misinterpretation. The style is also used to confuse the general public who don’t understand specific jargon or read at an average level. I believe the Framers wanted to avoid any confusion to their citizens at the time, but doing so allowed future lawmakers to take advantage of their simplicity. If lawmakers today wrote as lawmakers did back then average citizens could understand laws, but politicians couldn't take advantage like they do today. Maybe the Framers intended to make their documents open for interpretation, because that is what democracy is all about. Our laws should be flexible so they can change along with our evolving society. The United States government and lawmakers alike have lost this important idea when they write their laws and documents today. If the official style shuts the door on opportunity for interpretation, how can our society grow and develop?
For further information on the Second Amendment and Wisconsin's Concealed Carry Rule visit these websites: