31 Plain Language: Word Choice

Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you will be able to

  • Choose appropriate words
    • use common words instead of complex ones
    • use the correct word
    • use words with the appropriate connotation
    • avoid jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms (PLAIN, 2011, p. 46-47)
    • use strong, action-oriented verbs (PLAIN, 2011, p. 22-23)
    • avoid noun strings (PLAIN, 2011, p. 35)
    • use inclusive language (Queen’s University, n.d.)

When you apply plain language guidelines to your writing, you must choose words carefully.

Choose Short, Simple Words

Use Common Words

Sometimes writers incorrectly choose complicated words – words that are long or unusual – when they should choose simpler words. Remember, your goal is to communicate with your readers – not impress them with your vocabulary. A simple word is usually much better than a complicated one.

Complicated words: We anticipate that this state-of-the-art aircraft navigation component will be advantageous as a means of complying with the regulations.

Simple words: We expect that this new plane part for navigation will be helpful to follow the regulations.

Here is a short list of the worst words – with suggestions for simple synonyms you can use instead

Don’t say Do say
above mentioned earlier
assist/assistance help
at the present time now
commence start/begin
facilitate help/make possible
henceforth from now on
in regard to about
in the amount of for
on an annual basis yearly
requirement need
state-of-the-art latest
thus so
utilize/utilization use
Use this chart from the The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) to help you choose the best words!


Learning Check

Practice your writing using plain language. Rewrite the following sentences.

From “Unit 5: Analyzing your Audience” in J. Smith Communication at Work, n.d., Kwantlen Polytechnic University (https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/communicationsatwork/) CC-BY.

Use the Correct Word

English is a tricky language! Homonyms, like “cite” and “sight” and “site”, are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Sometimes grammar and spell-check programs can’t catch when we make a mistake with these words, so it is important that we proofread our work carefully and watch out for trick words.

Test your knowledge of the commonly misused words by trying the learning check below!

Learning Check

Demonstrate your knowledge of using the correct word. Answer the following questions.

Consider Connotations

It is also important to consider the connotation of the words you use. Some words that are synonyms may have the same denotation (basic meaning) but different connotations (positive or negative associations). For example, the words “cheap,” “cost-effective”, and “inexpensive” are synonyms but “cheap” has a negative connotation, “cost-effective” has a positive connotation, while “inexpensive” has a neutral connotation.

See the following examples of how words with similar meanings can have positive, neutral or negative connotations (feelings).[1]

Positive Neutral Negative
interesting questioning nosy
employ use exploit
thrifty saving stingy
steadfast tenacious stubborn
sated filled crammed
courageous confident conceited
uniqque different peculiar
meticulous selective picky
vintage old decrepit
elated happy manic
childlike young childish
easygoing relaxed lackadaisical
slim thin skinny
innocent adolescent immature
inquisitive interested prying
confident secure egotistical
chatty conversational jabbering
From Connotative Words, by University of Central Arkansas, 2019. (https://uca.edu/training/files/2019/09/Connotative-Words.pdf). Copyright 2022 by University of Central Arkansas

For more practice with denotation and connotation, check out this ThoughtCo exercise.

Avoid Jargon, Buzzwords, and Acronyms[2]

Jargon are specialized words or phrases that are only commonly understood within a particular group or profession. The average reader might not understand these words.

Don’t say Do say
involuntarily undomiciled homeless
the patient is being given positive-pressure ventilatory support The patient is on a respirator
Most refractory coatings to date exhibit a lack of reliability when subject to the impingement of entrained particulate matter in the propellant stream under extended firing durations. The exhaust gas eventually damages the coating of most existing ceramics.

Buzzwords are meaningless filler phrases. They are so overused that they have become cliched.

Don’t say
thinking outside the box
touch base
for all intents and purposes
Review this list of the 119 worst buzzwords[3] and eliminate them from your vocabulary ASAP right away!

Acronyms are like jargon – not everyone knows what they mean. Check over your writing. If you have used an acronym, make sure it is clear to the reader or try to replace it with a common term or phrase.

Don’t say Do say
FAQ frequently asked questions
PSW personal support worker (PSW)
ASAP right away

Watch this video[4]. Take Cornell notes of the main points, and make a list of the jargon and buzzwords mentioned in the video.

Use Strong Verbs

The following section explores the difference between hidden and strong verbs, according to the guidelines laid out by PLAIN[5].

Don’t “Hide” Verbs

Use strong, active verbs to tell your reader what you want them to do. Avoid using noun forms that “hide” the verb.

Hidden verbs come in two forms. Some have endings such as -ment, -tion, -sion, and -ance or link with verbs such as achieve, effect, give, have, make, reach, and take. Often, you will find a hidden verb between the words “the” and “of.”

Hidden verb: Please make an application for a personal loan.

Strong verb: Please apply for a personal loan.

Notice that the sentence with the strong verb is clearer and more concise. The reader knows exactly what to do.


Consider these examples from The Canadian Translation Bureau Style Guide[6]:

Poor Verb-Noun Phrasing Clear, Concise Verb
carry out an examination of examine
effect an improvement to improve
ensure maintenance of maintain
give consideration to consider
make an inquiry ask


In the table below, compare the wordy, complicated sentences on the left to the clearer, more concise sentences on the right.

The sentences on the right use strong verbs to help the readers understand the actions.

Verb Chart reproduced from PLAIN (2011, May). Federal Plain Language Guidelines, revision 1 [pdf], p. 23.

Avoid Noun Strings[7]

Sometimes writers “string” several nouns together. Noun strings can be confusing for readers. You can revise noun strings and make your writing more clear by eliminating descriptive words that aren’t essential and using more prepositions and articles to clarify the relationships among the words

Compare the wordy, complicated sentences on the left to the clearer, more concise sentences on the right.

Example of avoidable noun strings and their correctionsNoun Strings Chart reproduced from PLAIN (2011, May). Federal Plain Language Guidelines, revision 1 [pdf], p. 29.

Learning Check

Check your understanding by answering the following questions.

Use Inclusive Terms

The following information is from Queen’s University’s Style Guide[8].

Inclusive language respects and promotes all people as valued members of society. It uses vocabulary that avoids exclusion and stereotyping and is free from descriptors that portray individuals or groups of people as dependent, powerless, or less valued than others. It avoids all sexist, racist, or other discriminatory terminology.

Guiding Principles:

  • Use person-centered language.
  • Be respectful of a person or group’s preference regarding vocabulary and be guided in your writing by that preference.
  • Remember there is a difference between respectful and appropriate language for those belonging to a group (in-group) and those who don’t belong (out-group). For example, a person may have reclaimed a once-derogatory term and may now use this term. The same term, however, may offend when used by someone from outside that specific community.
  • Anticipate a diverse audience and make conscious efforts to reflect that diversity in written work and images. Take into consideration the different cultural, ethnic, religious, or racial backgrounds your audience may have, as well as the different ages, gender and sexual orientations, and disabilities, visible or not, of all people.
  • Avoid using descriptors that refer to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or age, unless those descriptors are relevant to the story.


The person should always come first – not the disability. Use language that emphasizes abilities and conveys a positive message rather than focusing on a person’s limitations or disabilities.

Use the following:

  • a person with a disability; persons with a disability (not people)
  • students/employees/faculty members with a disability
  • a person with cystic fibrosis

Indigenous Peoples

There are three distinct groups of Indigenous Peoples in Canada: First Nations (status and non-status Indians), Inuit, and Métis.

Where possible, avoid using the terms Aboriginal People, Native People, or First Nations People, as they do not encompass the separate origins and identities of the various groups. Native is a word similar in meaning to Aboriginal but is increasingly becoming outdated. The term Indigenous is now widely accepted and can be used interchangeably with Aboriginal Peoples. Capitalize both Aboriginal and Indigenous.

First Nation or Nations is widely accepted and has generally replaced the term Indian (although some individuals still prefer to be called Indian, it is generally not appropriate for a non-Indigenous person to use this term unless referring to individuals from India). First Nation(s) is widely used by status and non-status Indians (as described in the Indian Act). This term does not include Métis and Inuit people.

First Nations people come from different areas or Nations and have distinct cultures, languages and traditions. When possible, avoid referring to First Nations people as a homogeneous group. Include someone’s specific Nation, community, or band (use the spelling the band prefers). For example, Thunder Bay is located in the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe people, which includes includes members of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Mississaugas, Nipissing, and Algonquin peoples.

Canadian Press notes that the word Métis originally applied to descendants of French traders and trappers and Aboriginal women in the Canadian northwest. Now it is usually taken to mean anyone of mixed Indian and European ancestry. Many Canadians have this mixed ancestry but not all describe themselves as Métis.

The Inuit population lives in small settlements above the treeline from Labrador to Alaska. Inuit make up 85 per cent of the population of the territory of Nunavut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk. Their language is Inuktitut. Do not use the term Eskimo.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

Use inclusive, gender-neutral terms rather than those that make sex distinctions.

  • humankind, not mankind
  • staffing the office, not manning the office
  • ancestors, not forefathers
  • working hours, not man hours
  • artificial, synthetic or constructed, not manmade

The gender identity of an individual may not conform to social expectations about gender based on anatomy and appearance, or to the gender assigned that individual at birth. Be aware that some individuals identify themselves as transgender and that some individuals do not identify with the “gender binary” at all; that is, they do not identify themselves as being male or female, man or woman. Where it is not clear what, if any, gendered pronouns or nouns may be appropriately used for an individual, ask that individual and respect the individual’s wishes. Some individuals may prefer the use of recently constructed sets of gender-neutral pronouns or to substitute plural pronouns (they, their, them) for the singular, gendered one.

Be mindful of the appropriate terms (for example, 2SLGBTQ+ – 2 Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). Use the phrase sexual orientation, not sexual preference.

Race and Ethnicity

Avoid generalizations and stereotyping based in race or ethnicity. Be respectful of all cultural backgrounds and be inclusive in recognizing the diversity at Queen’s University. Avoid identifying people by race, colour, or national origin, unless it is appropriate for context, and do not assume that a person’s appearance defines their nationality or cultural background.

Capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, and races: Aboriginal Peoples, Métis, Cree, Inuit, Arab, French-Canadian, Jew, Latin, Asian.

Terms such as “visible minority” and “person of colour” are increasing becoming more outdated and inaccurate. If relevant, use the following terms to describe persons or groups: “racialized person,” “member of a racialized group,” or “racialized group.”


CHECKLIST | Word Choice

❑    Have you used common words?

❑    Have you avoided jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms?

❑    Have you used strong verbs?

❑    Have you avoided strings of nouns?

❑    Have you used inclusive language?

  1. University of Central Arkansas. (2019, September). Connotative words. https://uca.edu/training/files/2019/09/Connotative-Words.pdf
  2. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). (2011, May). Federal Plain Language Guidelines, revision 1,  (pp. 46-47) . https://www.plainlanguage.gov/media/FederalPLGuidelines.pdf.
  3. Tomac, E. S. (2019, September 30). The ultimate list of 119 hated business buzzwords. TrustRadius Blog. https://www.trustradius.com/buyer-blog/119-hated-business-buzzwords.
  4. TED Institute. (2015, January 23). Thea Knight: Lost in Translation: The joy of a jargon-free world. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXcmdCxYpbA
  5. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). (2011, May). Federal Plain Language Guidelines, revision 1, (p. 22-23) . https://www.plainlanguage.gov/media/FederalPLGuidelines.pdf.
  6. Translation Bureau. (2015, September 23). 13.04 Vocabulary. In 13 Plain language - Canadian Style. Public Works and Government Services Canada. https://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tcdnstyl-chap?lang=eng&lettr=chapsect13&info0=13.
  7. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). (2011, May). Federal Plain Language Guidelines, revision 1, (p. 35) . https://www.plainlanguage.gov/media/FederalPLGuidelines.pdf.
  8. Queen's University. (n.d.). Inclusive language. In Style guide: Writing style. https://www.queensu.ca/brand-central/writing-style/inclusive.


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