Words to avoid?

Subject: Words to avoid?
From: Geoff Hart <Geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Tue, 27 Jul 1999 08:36:39 -0400

Julie Johnston wonders <<...Can anyone direct me to
resources for words to use/avoid in technical writing. We're
trying to avoid words with negative connotation & include
more "user-friendly" words.>>

Speaking as a veteran of <eek!> more than 20 years of
participation in various online discussion groups (from the
ancient BBS system up to the current internet), I'd have to say
that you're seeking the holy grail: there is no phrasing so
scrupulously constructed that someone, somewhere won't
take it amiss. That being said, there are certainly a few things
you can keep in mind to guide your word choice:

1. Always use the _right_ word for the context. There are
generally lots of "near misses" and "good enough" choices,
but there's always one right word. That word will rarely
offend unless the context itself is offensive. (And because the
context is so important in determining whether a word is
offensive, a word list by itself won't help you much unless
you have a good grasp of how context changes the meaning.)

2. If your writing will be seen by any audiences from a
different culture, ask several people from that culture to
review the final drafts for you. That'll be far more effective
than simply checking through a word list to see if you've
inadvertently used the wrong word. It's often easier to give
offense through the overall feel and thrust of a text than
through individual word choices. (Think, for example, about
the uproar a while back about the Sears catalog not using any
models who weren't white. The wording was probably
immaculate, but the overall impression...) Native readers will
also be able to spot incorrect word choice, such as referring to
"football" for European (soccer!) and American (touchdowns
and quarterbacks!) audiences.

3. Avoid metaphorical language, particularly if the metaphors
are culture-specific (e.g., Brits are familiar with cricket
metaphors; few North Americans are) or gender-specific
(sports and military references tend to work better for male
than female audiences; can't recall where I read this, but it
was a respected psychologist--Deb Tannen?--talking about
the different languages men and women use at work).

4. Avoid the generic "he", since you can always write your
way around this without creating awkward wording. FWIW, I
haven't seen any definitive studies of this subject, but I've
followed online discussions about it for the past 6 years, and
every time the subject arises, the majority of the respondents
are women, and the overwhelming majority of the women
who respond find the "generic he" offensive. Despite the
obvious "bias" in this data, it's nonetheless sufficiently
compelling evidence for me to have made this particular rule
part of my standard writing style.

5. In some cases, it may help you to use "controlled
vocabulary" or "simplified English" resources. A literature
search or Web search should turn up information on how this
works; we've also discussed this subject on techwr-l several
times over the years.

6. Rather than avoiding specific words, it's more effective to
avoid using words in contexts that make their meaning

7. And always, always, always (always!) work with your
audience to find out what words work best for them, and
which ones to avoid. No generic set of recommendations ever
works as well as doing a proper audience analysis.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Though the editor is the author's ally, she should never forget that
she is also the reader's first line of defense."--Shoshanna Green

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