Say What? A Citibank Letter Translated

By Lila MacLellan  FEB 10, 2010 12:10 PM

We asked a plain language expert to rewrite the bank's notice about rate increases.

 


Last winter, Citi (C) sent out a letter to its credit card clients informing them of across-the-board interest rate hikes. Written in typical bank gobbledygook, the letter raised more questions than it answered. If you fought your way through the awkward prose, however, you would learn that failing to pay your bill on time or surpassing your credit limit could trigger an interest rate charge of up to 29.99%. Not an insignificant amount, to say the least.

In light of Obama's new rules about clear and concise communication in bank literature (see Can Big Banks Really Learn to Speak English?), we asked plain language expert Annetta Cheek to read the letter and demonstrate how she would rewrite the notice to make it understandable. Here we present the two letters, one by Citi and one by Cheek, founder and chair of the Washington, DC-based Center for Plain Language, which is one of a handful of non-profit organizations that advocates for clear, reader-friendly letters in private sector and government literature. Cheek's career includes 25 years working for the federal government helping to clarify legalese in official documents. Here are the results.

Exhibit A: The original letter from Citi:


  • Exhibit A Page 1

  • Exhibit A Page 2


Exhibit B: The Citi letter rewritten by Annette Cheek. We've included her editing notes as an example of the kinds of questions that came up while she translated the document:


  • Exhibit B Page 1

  • Exhibit B Page 2



Citi didn't respond to our offer to have the bank review Cheek's questions. They did provide the following statement regarding their plans to comply with Obama's new language rules.

"Our goal is to communicate credit card terms and changes in a clear way and provide customers with greater choice and more control. We always encourage any customers who have concerns or need to clarify any part of our communications to contact us directly."

What do you think? Maybe Citi's 2009 letter should be nominated for a WonderMark award from the Center for Plain Language? The Center gives WonderMarks to the worst -- as in, most confusing -- documents from the public and private sectors. Citizens and companies can also nominate clearly written documents for a ClearMark prize. The deadline for the competition is March 1.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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