Dorothy Rosby
Contributing columnist
I have never read a prospectus cover to cover—though I have read a prospectus cover. If you have read one cover to cover, I know some things about you without ever having met you: You’re smarter and more patient than I am. You have more time on your hands than I do. And, you have reading glasses.
I know this because producers of these types of documents frequently use type the size of ant feet. Meanwhile, the prospectus itself is often the size of a JC Penney catalog. I don’t even read those cover to cover, and they’ve got pictures.
When I do attempt to read them, I get stuck on phrases like: “Risks include, but are not limited to delivery failure, default by the other party, or the lack of ability or opportunity to close out a position because the trading market becomes, or is likely to become, illiquid.” Oh.
I majored in journalism and communications. I studied words. Plus, they’re talking about my life savings. I think. But I still have no idea what that means. Granted, it’s been a long time since I was in college, and as a mother I spent quite a few years reading Dr. Seuss books almost exclusively.
Still, I’m suspicious that writers of many documents don’t really intend for us to understand them. Nobody who writes, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this agreement, any subsequent execution of the elective deferral options will be based on established measures,” is interested in being understood.
But it isn’t just my retirement information I can’t comprehend. It’s my insurance policies, my credit card agreements, my medical bills and more. I recall the day I signed the papers to finance my home. It took me twenty minutes to sign a stack of papers that would have taken me three months to read and a lifetime to comprehend. The loan officer smiled sweetly as she handed me page after page, explaining in simple terms what each of them said. If she could explain the documents that simply, why couldn’t the writer make them that simple? Or was the loan officer lying? Will she call me one day to tell me she’s moving into my house and converting my guest room into servant’s quarters—for my family? When I protest, will she say, “But you signed the papers”?
After years of wading through all the documents it takes to be a semi-responsible adult, I’ve discovered the writers’ devious methods, if not their meaning.
Number one, they never use one word when a whole phrase will do. They don’t say “because,” they say “due to the fact that . . .” They don’t just “estimate,” they “make an approximation as to how many.” They don’t just receive your letter; they “acknowledge receipt of your recent correspondence.” Before you know it, a paragraph’s worth of information fills twelve pages—twelve very dull pages.
Secondly, they never use a common word when they can use an obscure one. They don’t “prove,” they “substantiate.” They don’t “learn,” they “ascertain.” They don’t “substitute,” they “subrogate,” leaving you to wonder what just happened.
They save the plain English for information you already know. “You ARE responsible for this bill.” “The post office will NOT deliver without a stamp.” If they think we’re that dim-witted, you know they don’t really expect us to understand when they say, “Our share is that proportion of the loss that the applicable maximum value under this policy bears to the total amount of insurance covering the loss at the time that it is incurred.” Then our basement floods and they’re glad we didn’t understand.
(See or contact Dorothy, at [email protected] Use plain English.)