Plain English and Unbiased Stylebook

Clarifying local government written, verbal, and online communication by using Unbiased Terminology, Plain English, and Other Clear Communication Tactics

  1. Eliminating Bias

 Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer, prepared a report for West Palm Beach Florida in the 1990s that identifies biases inherent in some of the current transportation language used for transportation projects communities often engage in.  The report recommended more objective language be used for all correspondences, resolutions, ordinances, plans, language at meetings, etc. and when updating past work.

The following is based on that report.

Background. Much of the current transportation language was developed several decades ago at a time when the car was the major priority in cities. However, an important contemporary objective for many cities is creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system characterized by freedom of travel choice. Unfortunately, transportation language has not evolved to comply with this objective, and much of it still carries a pro-car bias. Continued use of biased language is not in keeping with the objective of a balanced, equitable, sustainable, “smart” transportation system.

Language Changes. There are several biased words and phrases that are still commonly used, and which should be phased out as a way to achieve this objective.

The word improvements is often used when referring to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity, speeds or both. Though these changes may indeed be improvements from the perspective of those driving a car, they would not be considered improvements by those bicycling or walking. For example, a resident may not think that adding more lanes in front of the resident’s house is an improvement. A parent may not think that a channelized right turn lane is an improvement on their child’s pedestrian route to school. By City staff referring to these changes as improvements, it indicates that the City is biased in favor of one group at the expense of others. Suggested objective language includes being descriptive (e.g., use through lanes, turn lanes, etc.) or using language such as modifications or changes.

Examples:

 Biased

The following street improvements are recommended.

The intersection improvement will cost $5,000.00.

The motor vehicle capacity will be improved.

Objective

The following street modifications are recommended.

The right turn channel will cost $5,000,00.

The motor vehicle capacity will be changed.

Like improved and improvement, there are similarly biased words such as enhance, enhancement, and deteriorate. Suggested objective language is shown in the examples below.

Examples:

 Biased

The level of service was enhanced.

The level of service deteriorated.

The capacity enhancements will cost $40,000.00.

Objective

The level of service for cars was changed.

The level of service for cars was decreased.

The level of service for cars was increased.

The increases to car capacity will cost $40,000.00.

 Upgrade is a term that is currently used to describe what happens when a local street is reconstructed as a collector, or when a two-lane street is expanded to four lanes. Upgrade implies a change for the better. Though this may be the case for one constituent, others may disagree. Again, using upgrade in this way indicates that the City has a bias that favors one group over other groups. Objective language includes expansion, reconstruction, widened, or changed.

Examples:

 Biased

 Upgrading the street will require a wider right of way.

The upgrades will lengthen sight distances.

Objective

 Widening the street will require a wider right of way.

The changes will lengthen sight distances.

Promoting alternative modes of transportation is generally considered a good thing at the City. However, the word alternative begs the question “Alternative to what?” The assumption is alternative to cars. Alternative also implies that these alternative modes are nontraditional or nonconventional, which is not the case with the pedestrian, bicycle, nor transit forms of travel. In addition, the term alternative disparagingly implies that it is a form of travel only used by undesirable or unusual people, and will therefore never be a form of mainstream transportation used by us “normal” people.

If we are discussing alternative modes of transportation in the City, direct and objective language or modifiers such as “non-automobile” or “sustainable” forms of transportation should be used.

Examples:

 Biased

 Alternative modes of transportation are important to downtown.

 Objective

 Non-automobile forms of transportation are important to the downtown.

Non-motorized forms of transportation are important to the downtown.

Alternative forms of transportation to the car are important to the downtown.

Sustainable forms of transportation are important to the downtown.

 

Accidents are events during which something harmful or unlucky happens unexpectedly or by chance. Accident implies no fault. It is well known that the vast majority of accidents are preventable and that fault can be assigned. The use of accident also reduces the degree of responsibility and severity associated with the situation and invokes an inherent degree of sympathy for the person responsible. Objective language includes collision and crash.

Examples:

Biased

Motor vehicle accidents kill 200 people every year in the County.

He had an accident with a light pole.

Here is the accident report.

Objective

Motor vehicle collisions kill 200 people every year in the County.

He crashed into a light pole.

Here is the collision report.

Everyone at the City should strive to make the transportation systems operate as efficiently as possible. However, we must be careful how we use efficient because that word is frequently confused with the word “faster.” Typically, efficiency issues are raised when dealing with motor vehicles operating at slow speeds. The assumption is that if changes were made that increase the speeds of the motor vehicles, then efficiency rises. However, this assumption is highly debatable. For example, high motor vehicle speeds lead to urban sprawl, motor vehicle dependence, and high resource use (land, metal, rubber, etc.) which reduces efficiency. Motor vehicles burn the least fuel at about 30 miles per hour, and the capacity of a street to carry cars is maximized at this modest speed; speeds above this result in inefficiencies. In urban areas, accelerating and decelerating from stopped conditions to high speeds results in inefficiencies when compared to slow and steady speeds. There are also efficiency debates about people’s travel time and other issues as well. Therefore, it is important that if the intent is “faster,” the term faster should be used. Faster is not necessarily more efficient. Similarly, if slower is meant, the term slower should be used.

Examples:

Biased

The traffic signal timings were adjusted to increase motor vehicle efficiency.

Let us widen the street so that cars operate more efficiently.

Objective

The traffic signal timings were adjusted to increase motor vehicle speeds.

Let us widen the street so that it cars operate faster.

Biased Terms                                                        Objective Terms

Improve change, modify
Enhance, deteriorate change, increase, decrease
Upgrade change, redesignate, expand, widen, replace
Alternative [bus, bicycle, and walking] sustainable, non-car
level of service level of service for …
Traffic motor vehicles
Accident collision, crash
Efficient Fast

  

  1. Plain English vs Complex, Jargon WordsMumbo jumbo concept.

 

Undesirable Better
a majority of Most
a sufficient amount of Enough
according to our data we find
after the conclusion of After
along the lines of Like
as is the case as is true
ascertain the location of Find
at such time as When
at the present time Now
at this point in time now
be deficient in lack
be in a position to can, be able
by a factor of two two times, double, twice
by means of by
come to a conclusion conclude
despite the fact that although
due to the fact that because
during the time that while
equally as well as well, equally well
fewer in number fewer
for the purpose of to, for
for the reason that because
for this reason thus, therefore
give consideration to consider, examine
give indication of allow, indicate, suggest
happen(s) to be am/is/are
has been proved to be is
if conditions are such that if
in a number of several, many
in all cases always
in case if
in close proximity to near
in excess of more than
in large measure largely
in many cases often
in most cases usually
in no case never
in order that so that
in order to to
in some cases sometimes
in terms of in
in the amount of for
in the case of for
in the event that if
in the field of in
in the near future soon
in the neighborhood of near, about, nearly
in the vicinity of near
in this case here
in view of the fact that because, since
is capable of can
is found to be is
is in a position to can
it has been found that (nothing)
it has been long known that (nothing)
it is a fact that (nothing)
it is evident that (nothing)
it is interesting to note that note that
it is noted that (nothing)
it is our opinion that we think
it is possible that perhaps
it is well known that (nothing)
it may be said that (nothing)
make inquiry regarding ask about, inquire about
manner in which how
notwithstanding the fact that although
on the basis of from, because, by
on the order of about, approximately
present in greater abundance more abundant
prior to before
provided that if
put an end to end
reach the conclusion conclude
serves the function of being is
subsequent to after
the question as to whether
there can be little doubt that Probably
utilize or utilization Use
with reference to about
with the exception that except that

 Needless Repetition

adequate enough adequate (or enough)
advance planning planning
appear(s) to be appear(s)
basic essentials basics (or essentials)
close proximity proximity
consensus of opinion consensus
cooperated together cooperated
definite decision decision
elongate in length elongate
first priority priority
future predictions predictions
general rule rule
green colored green
increase in increments increase
initial prototype (model) prototype
joint cooperation cooperation
major breakthrough breakthrough
modern science of today modem science
most optimum optimum
necessary requirement requirement
outside periphery periphery
rate of speed speed
resemble in appearance resemble
true facts facts
twelve in number twelve
usual rule rule
very unique unique

Stylebook for jargon2

 

Difficult                                                          Simple

administer manage
allocate give, divide
deem consider
enter (on a form) write
for the duration of during
herein here
heretofore until now
implement carry out
indicate show
in the event that if
on behalf of for
procure get
promulgate make, issue
pursuant to under
render make, give
represents is
said, same, such the, this, that
submit send
subsequent to after
to the extent that if, when
utilize use
with regard to/respect to for

 

  1. Editing Principles to Improve Readability

 The over-riding objective of editing documents intended for elected officials and other residents of a community is to make documents, plans, reports, and land development codes more readable, accessible, and transparent to a general, non-professional audience.

To do this, the following principles should be employed:

  1. Sentences and complex words are easier to read when they have been simplified.
  2. Less ambiguity is preferred for understandability.
  3. Minimizing jargon, “legalese” and “deadwood” phrases ease readability.
  4. Readability studies have shown that it is easier to read words that appear in upper case and lower case than to read words THAT ARE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
  5. Studies show that italics and underlined words are more difficult to read.
  6. Bolded words are not ideal for readability, but can be used, on occasion, for emphasis.
  7. In general, the best way to make words or phrases stand out is to increase font size and add spaces above and below words, and at the margins of the page – particularly for section headings.
  8. Single-spacing is easier to read than double-spacing.
  9. Tables, bullets and matrices are easier to read than paragraphs of text.
  10. Use graphics liberally to improve comprehension. Graphics should be simple, conceptual, and as broad-brushed as possible.
  11. Duplicate numbers (double-referencing) make reading more difficult. For example, “The building setback is twelve (12) feet.”
  12. Numeral expression for numbers is easier to read than numbers written out with letters. Never write out a number in a community document, plan, report, or code except the number one. This principle is particularly important for land development codes (in codes, use numerals even if the number starts a sentence). In plans and reports, numbers less than ten may be written out with letters, as is recommended in such stylebooks as the Associated Press stylebook.

 

Sources:

  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (1977)
  • Roget’s Thesaurus (1980)
  • APA Planners Advisory Service Memo, July 1986, April 1988
  • APA Zoning News, June 1994, July 1994
  • “Is Your Community Being Invaded by NIMBYs?” by Elaine Cogan, Planning Commissioners Journal, Summer 1996
  • “Do You Have the ‘Write Stuff’”? by Elaine Cogan, Planning Commissioners Journal, Fall 1998

 

 

About Dom Nozzi

Urban designer, Complete Streets instructor, smart growth specialist, town planner, walkable streets and bikeable streets and trails specialist, writer, editor, public speaker, world adventurer, skier, kayaker, SCUBA diver, bicyclist, hiker, dancer, book reader, cook, urbanist.
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