Albert Einstein once said that “the hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” Amen to that, Albert! With the April 18 tax deadline looming, and many of us currently in the throes of tax preparation, it’s not hard to appreciate the irony of that statement. Seriously, if one of the brightest minds the world has ever known found the federal tax code unwieldy, what are the rest of us non-geniuses supposed to make of it?
Maybe doing your taxes doesn’t faze you because you’ve got an accountant or use one of the online services such as TurboTax. We don’t blame you if you do, but if that’s the case then you may not fully appreciate just how indecipherable the tax code actually is. Sure, we all know that it’s supposed to be hard to follow, but what you might not understand is that it’s not just what the tax code says, but how it says it. This doozy is a prime example:
In case bond as provided in section 7324(3) shall have been executed and the property returned before seizure thereof by virtue of process in the proceedings in rem authorized in subsection (a) of this section, the marshal shall give notice of pendency of proceedings in court to the parties executing said bond, by personal service or publication, and in such manner and form as the court may direct, and the court shall thereupon have jurisdiction of said matter and parties in the same manner as if such property had been seized by virtue of the process aforesaid.
We wish we could tell you what this monster of a sentence means (and at 97 words it truly is a formidable beast), but frankly we haven’t got a clue. The writing is so convoluted and protracted that it just doesn’t make any sense. And, unfortunately, gems like this one aren’t the exception; they’re the rule. We know because we recently used our linguistic analytics engine to analyze the federal tax code.
Now before we get into what we discovered (you must be bristling with anticipation!), we should acknowledge two things:
- Yes, this may well be the geekiest thing we’ve ever done. If you’d like to invite us to your next cocktail party, just say the word.
- There’s a limit to how much even we were willing to geek out on this … we only looked at 2,200 of the more than 74,000 pages of the code, which translates into 2,917,684 words spread across 208,185 sentences.
Okay, now that we’ve got that off our chest, let’s move on to what we learned. The juicy details are below, but the TL;DR version can be summed up like this: If the IRS were in school, it would be flunking English. Big time.
It’s not that the code is riddled with typos and bad grammar (though there is some of that). The real issue is that it’s virtually unreadable. Both to Albert Einstein, and more importantly, to average taxpayers. We know this because readability was one of the dimensions we looked at when we analyzed the tax code — informality and liveliness were the others. Collectively, these are the factors that comprise our “voice scores” that, in our view, go beyond grammar and spelling to help differentiate average content from great content.
Admittedly, we didn’t have high expectations for the content to be lively (and with a score of 44.46, it didn’t disappoint) or for it to be very informal (it clocked in a 36.77 on our informality meter). Fair enough, it is the tax code after all. This is inherently dull, formal stuff. But, we at least hoped the content would score well in terms of readability.
In retrospect, we based this wildly flawed assumption on the fact that, since the introduction of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, the Federal Government has been mandated to start taking the quality of its content a lot more seriously. (The Act basically says that all of the government’s public-facing content needs to be written so that it’s understandable.) Not only that, a number of government departments, including the Treasury, appear to be making good progress. (You can see the most recent annual report card created by the Center for Plain Language in this post.)
Yet the folks at the IRS seem to have missed the boat entirely. Either that, or they’re as daunted as anyone would be by the prospect of turning 74,000 pages of gobbledygook into plain English. (Pro tip: it would be an easier task if they boiled all of that content down into a more manageable number of pages … like, say, five.) The fact is that the portion of the tax code we analyzed had an average readability score of 54. That’s a definite F.
To put things into perspective, in 2015 we analyzed the content from 340 of the top brands in the world, looking at similar factors including readability. If we compare all 340 companies’ readability scores to what the IRS has managed with the tax code, guess who comes in dead last?
The bottom line is that even if you’ve got a refund coming your way, doing your taxes is a drag. The IRS hasn’t helped matters by creating a tax code that’s virtually incomprehensible. We respectfully suggest using some of this year’s tax revenue to hire an army of editors to resolve this issue or, better yet, to start using Acrolinx.