Understandable words

Whether individual words are readable and understandable depends on a combination of their length and familiarity, which will vary with the reader. Those with limited vocabularies, such as people with low reading skills or users of English as a second language, are likely to be less familiar with many words.

This section covers:

Word length

One of the most obvious features of words is whether they are short or long. Although ‘short’ and ‘long’ are relative terms, the average length of words in the text can provide a measure of whether it is likely to be more or less readable for many readers. The average word length of your text is calculated by counting the total number of characters in every word and dividing it by the total number of words.

But average word length is only a rough measure of how difficult or easy the text will be for the average reader. This is because longer words are not always harder to understand (see also Word difficulty):

different [9 letters]

information [11 letters]

[Both words are likely to be understood by most readers because they are words that are familiar from everyday use.]

And shorter words are not always easier to understand (see also Word difficulty):

jib [3 letters]

wrest [5 letters]

[Both words may be unfamiliar to many readers.]

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Word difficulty

The perceived ‘difficulty’ of a word is often about how familiar it is to the reader.

It is hard to say exactly which words are likely to be familiar to adult readers, because of individual differences in language skills, reading ability, education, professional training and employment.

But a general measure of the familiarity of words is their frequency in common reading material, such as newspapers. Lists of more common words and their frequencies are available from international reference databases such as CELEX, or dictionaries for learners of English as a second language, such as the Longman dictionary of contemporary English. Dictionaries for learners of English as a second language try to define only the 3,000 most commonly used words, so that they are as useful as possible for those with limited vocabularies.

You can check the vocabulary range of your text against such resources.

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Technical words

Some texts will need to include technical terms. Readability will then depend on how familiar a reader is with the terms and the subject area.

Sometimes you will need to convey technical ideas to both specialist and general audiences. For example, communicating health advice or computer instructions to the general public may involve using technical language.

To make sure general readers can understand text that includes technical terms:

  • limit the number of technical terms by paraphrasing or using alternatives

  • explain any potentially unfamiliar or technical terms by providing clear definitions, or highlighting key words and their definitions in boxes.

If the person you care for is incontinent, you will need to plan carefully before you travel with them.
Add an upfront explanation to make this clearer:
Being ‘incontinent’ means the person can’t hold in urine (pee) or faeces (poo). If the person you care for is incontinent, you will need to plan carefully before you travel with them.

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