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Using Appropriate Words

Words are symbols for what we perceive with our senses. They communicate what we think, feel and do. The more complex the idea or thought, the more difficult it is to express it precisely in words.

Plain language writing emphasizes the use of the clearest words possible to describe actions, objects and people. That often means choosing a two-syllable word over a three-syllable one, an old familiar term instead of the latest bureaucratic expression and sometimes, several clearer words instead of one complicated word.

Your choice of words should be based on what will be clearer for your reader. If you're not sure, ask. Test out your document with some of the people who are likely to use it. To help you draft easy to understand documents, here are some guidelines on your choice of words.

Use Simple, Everyday Words
Use simple, familiar words instead of unfamiliar words.

Write as if someone is asking you what you mean. If you are writing for a diverse audience, sometimes you must be an interpreter as well as a writer.

Here are a few examples of simple words and phrases you might substitute:

Instead of: Use:
in lieu of
find out
send out, distribute
hasten, speed up
make easier, help
work out, devise, form
instead of
best, greatest, most

Cut out unnecessary words
Here is a sample list of some alternative words for common, wordy expressions:
Instead of: Use:
with regard to
by means of
in the event that
until such time
during such time
in respect of
in view of the fact
on the part of
subsequent to
under the provisions of
with a view to
it would appear that
it is probable that
notwithstanding the fact that
adequate number of
excessive number of
too many
Avoid using jargon
Using jargon can cause problems because your reader may not understand it. Also be wary of trendy, fashionable expressions such as "level playing field", "downtime" and "touch base". The fact that they are trendy will also mean that they will soon date your writing. Avoid them.
Instead of:
You will receive reactivation and assistance consistent with your requirements.
You will get the amount of help you need.
Avoid or explain technical words
Whenever possible, avoid words that your readers do not know. Every occupation and interest group has special terms. These terms become a problem only when you can't distinguish between terms that are necessary work tools and terms that are jargon.

If you must use a technical term define it - either by giving a definition or by giving an example.

Glossaries are more difficult to use if they are placed at the end of a book or booklet. Try placing a box defining the words on the same page as where the word is first used.

Instead of:
Economic espionage may be defined as the illegal or clandestine acquisition of critical Canadian economic information and technology by foreign governments or their surrogates
-Canadian Security Intelligence Service Public Report, 1992
Economic espionage means foreign governments or their agents illegally obtaining critical Canadian economic and technological secrets.
Don't change verbs into nouns
Nouns created from verbs are hard for the reader to understand and give the sentence an impersonal tone. When you write a noun that is derived from a verb, see if you can turn it back into a verb.
Instead of:
The requirement of the department is that employees work seven and one-half hours a day.
The Department requires employees to work seven and one-half hours a day.

Instead of:
You will work on the establishment of goals for the hiring, training and promotion of designated group employees.
You will establish goals for hiring, training and promoting employees from designated groups.

Avoid chains of nouns
Chains of nouns are strings of two or more nouns used to name one thing. They are often difficult for a reader to understand.

Noun chains take some effort to untangle. They lack connecting words such as of, for, about, in and the possessive,'s, that would clarify how the nouns relate to each other.

Instead of:
World population is increasing faster than world food production
The world's population is increasing faster than its food production.
Choose your words consistently
Be consistent in what you call something. Avoid using two or more names for the same thing.

Do not be afraid to repeat the same word or the same idea if it is important.

Use acronyms carefully
Acronyms are formed from the first letter of words which they represent. Remember that not everyone may know what the letters stand for. Put the acronyms in brackets the first time you use the proper term. Then you can use the acronym in the rest of your text.

Some acronyms like U.S.A. or R.C.M.P. may be so well known that they need no explanation.

But, when in doubt, spell it out.

Try this:

In the following examples, circle the words that you think would create problems for readers and then rewrite the sentence using the principles of plain language just reviewed.
  1. Prior to completing the application the applicants should determine if their qualifications meet the requirements of the program.
  2. The acquisition, operation and disposal of vehicles can be significantly improved.
  3. In our present circumstances, the budgetary aspect is a factor which must be taken into consideration to a greater degree.
  4. Timeliness of response, which usually depends on the proximity of rescue resources to incidents, is a critical factor in saving people in distress.
  5. Where a cheque is tendered in payment, the name of the corporation must be entered on the face of the cheque.

Other resources online:

U.S. National Performance Review
"Simpler Words and Phrases"
Writing User-Friendly Regulations
"Avoid Words and Constructions that Cause Confusion"

The Plain Language Center in British Columbia
Writing for real people

Q:How can I incorporate technical language into the plain language process?

A:Technical words should be explained in the text by either a definition or an example if there is even a remote chance that the reader may not understand.