Good content is always easy to read and understand - but sometimes you need to get to know users better before you can choose the right words.
We write for everyone in the UK on GOV.UK, so we’re always trying to understand how users read our content. Data and user research are our everyday tools - they help us understand what works for users and what they find difficult or confusing.
Then there’s the stuff you stumble across. Lately, I’ve been learning a language, which is a pretty humbling experience. Even after several years of learning, I stick to simple words and short sentences. But simple words can still confuse me - a lot.
Easy, everyday words often take on new, unguessable meanings when they are combined in phrases. Looking up the individual words doesn’t help, even for common phrases. They’re ‘idioms’ usually - groups of words that mean something different when they’re used together, just because people have used them that way for a long time.
I asked friends who speak English as a foreign language if this is a big problem in English, too. “Yes,” they said, “it’s one of the hardest things.”
Because I write for GOV.UK, I wanted to know more - writing for everyone in the UK includes people who speak English as a second language. When we write content about visas, we’re writing for people outside the UK with even less English experience.
My friends say English idioms (like ‘straight away’ instead of ‘immediately’) are hard to understand, but ‘phrasal verbs’ (when you join a verb like ‘take’ to a word like ‘up’) are the worst.
If you grew up speaking English you use phrasal verbs all the time and they don’t seem difficult. You just know that ‘take up’ means something different to ‘take off’, and that they both change meaning depending on the context. Not to mention ‘take in’, ‘take over’, ‘take on’...
There are thousands of them, and they even confuse advanced English learners, according to ‘English for the Natives’ by Harry Ritchie. “Studied English at university? Lived in London for a year? Think you’re pretty fluent?” he writes. “Have a flick through ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs’...and think again.”
I’m not suggesting you should stop using phrasal verbs. They help you avoid intimidating formal language when you’re writing in plain, conversational English. (I’d use ‘find out’ instead of ‘enquire’ or ‘discover’, for instance.)
They also help keep sentences short and to the point, which is good for anyone reading online - especially the 10% of people in the UK with dyslexia.
But sometimes it’s worth thinking twice about the short phrases that sound simple if you’re a fluent English speaker. ‘Turn down’ might seem easier to understand than ‘reject’. But perhaps not when you’re writing about visa applications.