Watch your language! Use plain language to create better websites

An important part of web accessibility compliance is using plain language - presenting text that is readable and understandable.

McGill's websites must be accessible to all audiences. Our provincial government has made this a requirement. It's also simply the right thing to do.

An important part of web accessibility compliance is using plain language - presenting text that is readable and understandable (see Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Guideline 3.1).

Using plain language will also make your content more effective overall, no matter the audience. When conducting audience research we've observed that plain language is preferred by students, staff, administrators and faculty.


How to write content that is readable and understandable

Keep it short and simple

  • Write short paragraphs and sentences
    • Paragraphs should be no more than 150 words, 3-8 sentences
  • Choose simple words, e.g. don't say utilize, say use
    • Choose words that are the most familiar to your audience
    • Avoid professional jargon, slang, and other terms with a special meaning
  • Remove redundant words, words that don't add meaning
  • Use active voice
  • Use verb tenses consistently
  • Use names and labels consistently

Be organized

  • Include a single topic or subtopic per paragraph
  • Use bulleted or numbered lists instead of paragraphs when presenting a series of related items
  • Put information in logical order with the important details first

Follow web standards for readability

  • Expect users to scan
  • Structure your content
  • Use your users' questions as headings
  • Format content using the inverted pyramid style
  • For long articles start with a summarized overview
  • Write in a friendly tone
    • Write like you would talk, use contractions, use the present tense
  • Use pronouns - "you" - to speak directly to your reader

Why use plain language?

Plain language is a web accessibility requirement. It also improves:

  • Usability
  • SEO - People use plain language when typing into search
  • Comprehension
  • Adherence to instructions

Studies prove that professionals prefer plain language as it allows people to understand content as quickly as possible.

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