Using Words You and Your Audience Know

Ya know, this seems pretty obvious – almost so obvious it shouldn't be the first thing you read in a book about how to write definitions. But it has to be said. It has to be said because all too often we read something in our business lives (not so much for entertainment, thank the universe) that just doesn't make sense. In some instances, the author wants to "sound smart" by using "big words". As an example, here's a paper from a student I read the other day:

"The dialectical interface between neo-obstructionists and anti-disestablishment GOPers is stuck in a morass of quibbling over pettifog."

The paper was about discussions between students and lawmakers over stricter gun laws for assault weapons. The sentence, in plain English, reads as this:

"The logical discussions between student protesters and Republican lawmakers resisting change is bogged down because of arguing over petty things."

In some instances, the author just uses the wrong words. One famous example, used in many word choice articles, is as follows:

"Cree Indians were a monotonous culture until French and British settlers arrived."

What the author meant was that Cree Indians were a homogenous culture.

So, before we get started on a conversation about definitions, when picking your words, if you run across words you don't use often, ask yourself these basic questions:

  1. Can I spell the word correctly? Here's a hint. Open your favorite word processor and make sure active spell checking is turned on. Then type the word. If it comes up with an underline, your dictionary doesn't recognize it. Most word processors will allow you to Control-Click or Right-Click the term and look up a spelling suggestion.spell check
  2. What does this word mean? Second hint. Research the term online and find a consistent meaning. If you can't readily find a definition for the term don't use it. Try looking up the definition of "dialectical interface" above. If you find a definition, email the team at We'd love to see it and know where you found for definition
  3. Will the people I'm communicating with know what this word means? Will they have the same understanding of the meaning that I do? Third hint. Ask a few people who might read your writing if they know what your term means. You'll be surprised at the varied answers. We did this once with government writers working on a cybersecurity manual. We asked for the definition of Cybersecurity. Twelve people, thirteen answers - all different. One guy wrote two answers because he wasn't confident of either one of them.understanding definitions

If you don't know what you are talking about, no one else will either.

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