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Using appropriate words

Using appropriate words

Plain language

Familiar words | Useless words | Redundancy | Jargon | Technical words | Noun phrases | Abbreviations | Capitalization |  Inclusiveness

Strive to be human in your writing. A formal, bureaucratic tone too often creates distance between you (and King County) and your readers.

Plain-language writing uses 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.

Use words your readers are likely to understand. Base your choice of words on what will be clearer for your reader. To help you draft easy-to-understand documents, below are some guidelines on your choice of words. Also see the Guide to concise writing for concise alternatives to overstated, pompous words; wordy, bureaucratic phrases; and redundant phrases.

  • Instead of:
    Subsequent to the passage of the subject ordinance, it is incumbent upon you to advise your department to comply with it.
  • Use:
    After the law passes, you must tell your staff to follow it.

Use simple, everyday, familiar words

Choose common English words with clear meanings: explain a problem instead of address a problem; invisible, open or obvious instead of transparent. Especially if your document may have many readers with limited English proficiency or be translated for them, choose words with just one or a few clear meanings. Also avoid puns and words with double meanings: voters instead of grassroots; available instead of free (if that's what you mean).

Here are other examples of simple, precise words and phrases you might substitute:

Instead of ... Try using ...
amongst among
attain arrive at, gain, get, grasp, meet, reach, win
consequently so
dialogue (as a verb) meet, talk
disseminate communicate, deliver, distribute, give, scatter, send, send out, share, spread
endeavor (as a verb) carry out, strive, take on, try
expedite hasten, help along, hurry, rush, send, speed up
hereinafter after this, from now on, in the rest of this document, later
heretofore before, before this, earlier, until now
impact (as a verb) change, have an effect, increase, influence, risk, stimulate
implement (as a verb) carry out, do, finish, fulfill, impose, put into effect, set up, start
inordinately excessively, unduly, unusually
institute (as a verb) begin, create, found, set up, start
obtain get
optimum best, greatest, ideal, most, peak
per annum [Latin] annually, a year, each year, yearly
per capita [Latin] each, per person
per diem [Latin] a day, daily
peruse examine, inspect, read carefully or thoroughly, study
prioritize order, rank, set priorities
reference (as a verb) mentioning, refer
shall will or must
strategize plan
support confirm, imply, prove, show, suggest, verify; or aid, help; or encourage, mandate
terminate close, end, exit, finish, limit, stop, wind up
therein in it, in that matter, there
utilize make use of, use
wherein in what, in which, where

For more shorter, simpler alternatives to overstated, bureaucratic and pompous words.

Cut out unnecessary, useless words

Use only as many words as you need. Use fewer structural words with little meaning: because or since instead of due to the fact that; if instead of in the event that. Tighten verbose (or wordy) text by replacing overly complex statements with shorter terms or single words: geography, not the field of geography; tends to, not have a tendency to.

Here is a sample list of some alternative words for common, wordy expressions:

Instead of ... Try using ...
adequate number of acceptable, enough, satisfactory
a certain number of some
a great many many
apart from besides, in addition
at the present time now
be advised that note that, please note that
by means of by, using, with
despite the fact that although, though
during the time during, when, while
excessive number of too many
for the purpose of to
from time to time at times, occasionally, sometimes
if this is the case if so
if this is not the case if no
in lieu of for, in place of, instead of
in many cases many, often
in the event of if, when [not if and when]
it is probable that probably
it would appear that apparently
a majority of most
once in a while sometimes
on the part of among, by, for, of
prior to ahead of, before
pursuant to under
subsequent to after, following, later, next, then
this office I, me. us, we
under the provisions of by, under
until such time until
with reference to, with regard to about, for as for, on

For more simpler, concise alternatives to wordy, bureaucratic phrases

Cut redundant ideas, words and phrases

Avoid using wordy phrases and multiple words with similar meanings or unhelpful redundancies. For example, try protrude, not protrude out; either if or when, not if and when; result, not end result; square, not square in shape; experience, not past experience; demolished, not totally demolished; visible, not visible to the eye; complete or finished, not completely finished; four hours, not four hours of time; 5 feet high, not 5 feet in height.

Later, go through your document and ask yourself if you're repeating information needlessly. If so, combine your thoughts or remove the matching ideas.

Here is a sample list of alternative words for some redundant phrases:

Instead of ... Try using ...
added bonus bonus
advance notice notice
at this juncture, at this point in time at this time, now, this week, today
city of Renton Renton [but City of Renton to refer to the government]
close proximity close, near
current status status
during the hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
10 feet in length 10 feet long
filled to capacity filled, full
first and foremost first
future plans plans
general consensus agreement, consensus
join together join
month of November November
12 noon noon
past history history
period of time period, time
postpone until later postpone
refer back refer
thoroughly understand understand
totally dedicated, totally devoted dedicated, devoted
total number total

For more concise replacements for redundant phrases.

Avoid using jargon

Using unfamiliar jargon and bureaucratese can cause problems because your reader may not understand it. Jargon also can distract your reader from your real message. Write boots, not leather personnel carriers; telephone, not telephonic communications instrument; advocate for the homeless, not homeless advocate; next to or near, not adjacent to; make easy or help or lead, not facilitate.

Be wary of trendy, fashionable expressions such as downtime, synergy, downside and touch base. Try inviting people into a planning process, not a visioning process. Trendy terminology could confuse or annoy readers and date it. Similarly, avoid old-fashioned sayings and formal phrases like grist in the mill, pig in a poke, as per your letter (instead, try according to your letter), notwithstanding (instead, try despite or still).

Also, avoid terms that could be misunderstood by readers who use English as a second language or by people translating a document from English into another language. Such terms include military and sports vocabularylevel playing field, end runs, targets, game plans, sticky wickets, tackle; and regionalisms and slangthat dog don’t hunt; jury-rig or jerry-built. They also include literary and cultural allusionsheart on his sleeve, move mountains, an offer he can’t refuse; and metaphorsa steep learning curve, a piece of cake, pave the way for.

  • Instead of:
    All illumination on these premises must be extinguished upon departure.
  • Use:
    Please turn out the lights if you're the last to leave.

Avoid or explain technical words
or difficult terms

Whenever possible, avoid words that your readers do not know. Every occupation and interest group has special terms. If you must use a technical term, define it--either by giving a definition, explaining the term or by giving an example. If suitable for your publication, think about including a glossary of technical words and difficult terms.

Also, avoid technical terms used with nontechnical meanings: Use start instead of initialize; work with, meet or call instead of interface with. And avoid rare or fancy words used within your work group or profession, like nexus and infrastructure.

Don't change verbs into nouns

Use verbs to suggest the most significant actions in your sentences. Nouns created from verbs are harder for the reader to understand. They also give the sentence an impersonal tone: explain, not provide an explanation; decide, not make a decision; decide (or find or work out or discover), not make a determination.

Use verbs to suggest the most significant actions in your sentences. . They also give the sentence an impersonal tone: , not ; , not ; (or or or ), not .

Also, use verbs instead of abstract nounsconsider instead of consideration, adjust instead of adjustment, recommend instead of recommendationimprove instead of improvement.

When you write a noun that comes from a verb, see if you can turn it back into a verb by removing endings like -tion, -ence and -ment. Use the clearest, crispest, liveliest verb to express your thoughts.

  • Instead of:
    The requirement of the department is that employees work eight hours a day.
  • Use:
    The department requires employees to work eight hours a day.
  • Instead of:
    The team's role is to perform problem definition and resolution.
  • Use:
    The team's role is to define problems and resolve them.
  • Or:
    The team's role is to define and resolve problems.

Here are other examples:

Instead of ... Try using ...
bring to a conclusion assume, close, decide, end, finish, infer, settle
carry out an evaluation check, evaluate, test
conduct a review of review
conduct an investigation explore, find out, look at, look into, research, study
exhibit improvement improve
file an application apply
gave an explanation explained
give a justification for justify
give assistance aid, back, help, relieve
have an objection object
have knowledge of, have need for know, need
have reservations about doubt
hold a meeting meet
make a proposal propose, recommend
offer a suggestion suggest
perform an assessment of assess
placed an order ordered
reach an agreement, reach a conclusion agree, conclude
send an invitation to invite
take action act

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.

Consider defining, explaining or revising noun phrases. Will the meaning of a noun phrase be familiar or clear to your readers or translator? If not, explain it in context, revise it to make its meaning clear, or define it in a glossary.

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 one another.

  • Instead of:
    World population is increasing faster than world food production
  • Use:
    The world's population is increasing faster than its food production.

Use acronyms and abbreviations carefully

Remember that not everyone may know what the acronyms and abbreviations stand for. Avoid nonessential abbreviations, Latin abbreviations, uncommon contractions and obscure acronyms, especially in documents that may be translated for or used by readers with limited English proficiency. Also, avoid informal nonstandard spellings and shortened words.

Sometimes, putting an acronym or abbreviation in parentheses the first time you use the proper term can be useful. Then you can use the acronym in the rest of your text. But even if you use that technique, avoid filling a document with various obscure acronyms. Also see abbreviations and acronyms in the King County Editorial Style Manual.

When in doubt, spell it out.
Here are other examples:
Instead of ... Try using ...
aka also known as
ASAP as soon as possible, soon [or be specific about time]
could've, should've, would've could have, should have, would have
e.g. for example, such as
etc. and so on, and the rest
i.e. that is
hi, lo high, low
lb., oz. pound, ounce
lite light
mightn't, mustn't might not, must not
n.a., N/A not applicable, not available, none
rep repetition, representative
specs specifications
stats statistics
that'll that will
thru through
vet veteran, veterinarian

Use capital letters sparingly, consistently

Avoid unnecessary capitalization. Capital letters are an important cue to readers and translators that a term is a proper noun, not a common noun. Use capital letters to identify proper nouns -- the formal, official, unique or popular names of a specific person, organization, place or thing. Also use capital letters to begin sentences, headings, the important words in publication titles, and letters in some abbreviations and acronyms.

Random, excessive capitalization for other purposes hinders reading and may confuse readers. Do not capitalize the first letter of a word or words in a phrase simply to highlight them or to express their importance. Translators typically translate common nouns and leave proper nouns in English.

Also see capitalization and related entries in the King County Editorial Style Manual.

Use inclusive language

Sexist writing builds a barrier between you and half your readers. Use sex-neutral terms by avoiding words that suggest maleness is the norm, superior or positive and that femaleness is nonstandard, subordinate or negative. For guidelines, see sex, sexism in the King County Editorial Style Manual.

Readers with disabilities also face barriers--in communications and facilities. For guidelines in using appropriate language, see disabled in the King County style manual. Also see the King County Office of Civil Rights Enforcement for guidelines and requirements about providing printed materials in alternate formats (DOC, internal link) for people with disabilities.

To King County Editorial Style Manual