Clarifying local government written, verbal, and online communication by using Unbiased Terminology, Plain English, and Other Clear Communication Tactics
- 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.
The following street improvements are recommended.
The intersection improvement will cost $5,000.00.
The motor vehicle capacity will be improved.
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.
The level of service was enhanced.
The level of service deteriorated.
The capacity enhancements will cost $40,000.00.
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.
Upgrading the street will require a wider right of way.
The upgrades will lengthen sight distances.
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.
Alternative modes of transportation are important to downtown.
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.
Motor vehicle accidents kill 200 people every year in the County.
He had an accident with a light pole.
Here is the accident report.
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.
The traffic signal timings were adjusted to increase motor vehicle efficiency.
Let us widen the street so that cars operate more efficiently.
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
|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 …|
- Plain English vs Complex, Jargon Words
|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 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|
|put an end to||end|
|reach the conclusion||conclude|
|serves the function of being||is|
|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|
|adequate enough||adequate (or enough)|
|appear(s) to be||appear(s)|
|basic essentials||basics (or essentials)|
|consensus of opinion||consensus|
|elongate in length||elongate|
|increase in increments||increase|
|initial prototype (model)||prototype|
|modern science of today||modem science|
|rate of speed||speed|
|resemble in appearance||resemble|
|twelve in number||twelve|
|enter (on a form)||write|
|for the duration of||during|
|in the event that||if|
|on behalf of||for|
|said, same, such||the, this, that|
|to the extent that||if, when|
|with regard to/respect to||for|
- 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:
- Sentences and complex words are easier to read when they have been simplified.
- Less ambiguity is preferred for understandability.
- Minimizing jargon, “legalese” and “deadwood” phrases ease readability.
- 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.
- Studies show that italics and underlined words are more difficult to read.
- Bolded words are not ideal for readability, but can be used, on occasion, for emphasis.
- 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.
- Single-spacing is easier to read than double-spacing.
- Tables, bullets and matrices are easier to read than paragraphs of text.
- Use graphics liberally to improve comprehension. Graphics should be simple, conceptual, and as broad-brushed as possible.
- Duplicate numbers (double-referencing) make reading more difficult. For example, “The building setback is twelve (12) feet.”
- 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.
- 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