U.S. government websites are for everyone. The content they contain should be as straightforward as possible.
One of the best ways to make content clear and usable is to use plain language. When we use words people understand, our content is more findable, accessible, and inclusive. Plain language is also mandatory for all federal government websites.
When we use jargon in our writing, we risk losing users’ trust. Government, legal, business jargon are often vague or unfamiliar to users, and can lead to misinterpretation.
Another temptation that can hurt readability is figurative language: it often doesn’t say what you actually mean, and can make your content more difficult to understand. For example:
- drive (you can only drive vehicles, not schemes or people)
- drive out (unless it’s cattle)
- going forward (unless you’re giving directions)
- one-stop shop (we’re the government, not a big box store)
In most cases, you can avoid these figures of speech by describing what you’re actually doing. Be open and specific.
If you’re struggling to use plain language, try writing conversationally. Picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-on-one, with the authority of someone who can actively help.
Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use buy instead of purchase, help instead of assist, about instead of approximately, and so on.
Plain language lists can help spot problem words and consider alternatives, but keep in mind that plain language is more than just a list of words to avoid—it’s a way of writing.
Words to avoid
- agenda (unless you’re talking about a meeting)
- collaborate (use working with)
- combating (use working against or fighting)
- commit or pledge (we need to be more specific — we’re either doing something or we’re not)
- countering (use answering or responding)
- deliver (pizzas, mail, and services are delivered — not abstract concepts like improvements or priorities)
- deploy (unless you’re talking about the military or software)
- dialogue (we speak to people)
- disincentivize or incentivize
- execute (use run or do)
- facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)
- foster (unless it’s children)
- illegals or illegal aliens (use undocumented immigrants)
- impact or impactful
- initiate (use start)
- innovative (use words that describe the positive outcome of the innovation)
- in order to (use to)
- key (unless it unlocks something, use important or omit)
- land (as a verb only use if you’re talking about aircraft)
- leverage (unless you use it in the financial sense)
- liaise (use collaborate, work with, or partner with)
- modify (use change instead)
- progress (what are you actually doing?)
- promote (unless you’re talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
- simple or simply (use straightforward, uncomplicated, or clear, or leave the descriptor out altogether)
- slimming down (processes don’t diet)
- strengthening (unless you’re referring to bridges or other structures)
- tackling (unless you’re referring to football or another contact sport)
- thought leader (refer to a person’s accomplishments)
- touchpoint (mention specific system components)
- transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
- user testing (use user research or usability testing)
- utilize (use use)
When to use legal and technical terms
Present complicated information clearly so it’s easier to understand. If you need to include legal terms or technical language, include a short, plain-language summary or define your terms up front.
It’s fine to use technical terms when they’re appropriate for the audience or the situation, but you need to explain what they mean on the first reference.