Readability clears confusionOntario and British Columbia are getting a new Harmonized Sales Tax, or HST, on July 1. The HST replaces the Goods & Services Tax that I now charge, so this will affect me. So I signed up about a month ago to receive technical bulletins from the government that would tell me things I might need to know.

Or not. The one today, on “Temporary Recapture of Input Tax Credits in Ontario and British Columbia,” summarized its contents in one sentence densely packed with 105 words of governmentese!

Let’s see, how many of us can easily understand a sentence like that?

100% of readers can usually understand a sentence of eight words, according to the American Press Institute. (I couldn’t find a link to the study itself, but author and writing coach Ann Wylie references it.) Only 0-9% can understand a sentence of 43 or more words. I think we can guarantee that not many people will understand this without reading and re-reading it many times:

From July 1, 2010, until June 30, 2018, with the introduction of the HST in Ontario and British Columbia, large businesses – generally those making taxable supplies worth more than $10 million annually, and certain specified financial institutions – will be required to repay or “recapture” the portion of any available input tax credits (ITCs) that is attributable to the provincial part of the HST that becomes payable, or is paid without having become payable, in respect of a specified property or service that is acquired, or brought into one of these provinces, by a large business for consumption or use by that business in those provinces.

Faced with an indigestible paragraph like this, the writer/editor who wants to be kind to readers will use these tools:

  • Break the paragraph into shorter sentences.
  • Focus on one thought per sentence. For example, move the explanation of a large business to a separate sentence.
  • Use smaller words.
  • Replace phrases like “in respect of” with simple transitions, like “for.”

Using these, I turned the one sentence into four:

Large businesses will see changes between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2018 due to a new tax in Ontario and British Columbia. This affects certain banking institutions and businesses making taxable goods worth more than $10 million a year. These businesses must repay a portion of tax credits related to the provincial part of the HST owed on a specific property/service. This product /service is one brought into either province to be used or consumed by that business.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, looking at those lost millions), I am not a large business, so I don’t have to understand that lengthy sentence, or the 28 pages that follow it. But shouldn’t the government be writing to make SURE the people running their own businesses CAN understand?

Image: Dizzy Glasses by “winnond” and