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When simple words aren't so simple

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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.

Content designers might look for other ways to understand users, too - like Roz Strachan, who’s been volunteering in adult literacy classes. She says it helps her write simply and accessibly.

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.

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  1. Comment by Polly Green posted on

    Very interesting post, Lil. The ‘turn down’ issue for visas is something I’ve pondered from the non-English speaking user’s perspective too, having given a couple of English lessons to a Polish woman once. She had an advanced level of English and great fluency but found phrasal verbs pretty baffling. I particularly remember the ‘throw up’ and ‘throw out’ example from that class!

    • Replies to Polly Green>

      Comment by Lil Boyce posted on

      Thanks, Polly. ('Throw up' came up in my conversations, too!) It would be good to hear more about what you gleaned from your English teaching - let's catch up soon.

  2. Comment by John Hayter posted on

    Interesting article. I've taught English as a second language and seen the pain on my students' faces when phrasal verbs come up/arise. In my ill-fated attempt to learn Czech, I can say that their equivalents are just as fiendish.

    One tip for writing phrasal verbs for non-native speakers: keep the preposition as close as possible to the verb. So, not 'Remember to clean all of your temporary and unwanted files up,' but 'Remember to clean up...' It's a lot easier for non-native speakers to a) look up the phrasal verb and b) hold it in the head while they parse the rest of the sentence.

  3. Comment by Tatiana Soukiassian posted on

    Really interesting and well written post. I'm a non-native English speaker myself; I'm used to phrasal verbs now, but did find it quite hard not to mix them up at one point, and quite illogical, as there is usually no way to figure out what they mean by combining the meaning of each half.
    Some elements of English spelling/pronunciation I also find illogical - eg. now/know, tough/thought/though, read/ read (past tense) etc.
    But it's not about English at all, whichever language you learn that isn't your native tongue has these weird bits that surprise you and make no sense in your own frame of reference, yet that are perfectly natural for native speakers. I think it's great, as it helps put your own language and thinking into perspective.
    Anyway, well done for making an effort to avoid the slightly weirder-looking bits of english when writing content for non-native speakers, definitely a good thing!

  4. Comment by Christine Potochny posted on

    Great post. I always tell organizations with international audiences to pay attention to very US-centric phrases such as "first base" on their websites. I have lived in the US for 30 years and I still say "blow off the candle", to my kids' delight.

    • Replies to Christine Potochny>

      Comment by Lil Boyce posted on

      Thanks, Christine - I'm just beginning to understand how troublesome prepositions like 'off' are, too. An Italian friend recently showed me a folder full of English prepositions she'd had to learn by rote (on their own and in phrasal verbs).

      • Replies to Lil Boyce>

        Comment by f. posted on

        Yes - the way Italians would learn English is by studying phrasal and irregular verbs by heart. You would start by learning long verb lists that go something like "be - was/were - been, buy - bought - bought, take - took - taken" etc. and once you master that, you'd start adding prepositions, as in: "take in - take out - take off - take up on" and so on. For somebody with a romance language background (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French...) learning English phrasal verbs is a rather laborious process - and that does not even begin to take into account regional variation of English where prepositions are used in different places, too!

  5. Comment by Aki Libo-on posted on

    Great post, Lil! 🙂 Your post emphasizes that the use of English language is a cultural thing.

    Using one of your examples: Instead of 'straight away', we Filipinos use 'right away' or 'right now'.

    It only shows that people who write for the web (or for government document) should always consider their audience and how they use the English language.

    • Replies to Aki Libo-on>

      Comment by Lil Boyce posted on

      That's a great point, Aki - yet another reason to avoid idioms if you're writing for users everywhere.