Unusual words - accessibility for web writers

The accessibility guidelines require that we explain or define any jargon, idioms or unusual words in our content. Often it's even better to avoid using those words.

Benefits of using everyday words

People with cognitive, language or learning disabilities can be confused if you use unusual words, or use regular words in unusual ways. People with English as a second language may also struggle.

If you use everyday words, everyone will understand your content.

Two types of words to watch out for are jargon and idioms.


Jargon is language used by people within a trade, profession, group or organisation. By definition, it is often not shared beyond the group that uses it. This can create problems for people reading your content if they are not from your organisation or profession and the terms you use are not well known to them. Here are some examples.

  • footway (footpath)
  • waterway (creek, canal, river, lake, sea, ocean)
  • revolving credit facility (overdraft, line of credit)
  • transfer station (rubbish tip)
  • testamur (degree certificate)


An idiom is a word or phrase that means something different to the literal meaning of the words within it. Idioms often rely on a shared cultural background. Australians use idioms that other English speakers may not understand and vice versa. Here are some examples you might hear in a business context.

  • belt-tightening (cut expenses)
  • cash cow (product or service that creates a lot of income)
  • empty nesters (people whose children no longer live at home)
  • jump through hoops (deal with a lot of difficulties)
  • plug (promote something)
  • rally the troops (motivate people)
  • through the roof (very high, higher than expected)

Idioms can create problems for people with English as a second language, even though they may know the meaning of each word within the phrase. And anyone trying to translate idioms from one language to another is likely to run into trouble. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines include these great examples:

  • In English, "spilling the beans" means "revealing a secret." However, "knocking over the beans" or "spilling the vegetables" doesn't mean the same thing
  • In Japanese, the phrase "さじを投げる" literally translates as "he throws a spoon," but it means that there is nothing he can do and finally he gives up
  • In Dutch, "Hij ging met de kippen op stok" literally translates as "He went to roost with the chickens," but it means that he went to bed early.

Avoid this language if you can

Accessibility guidelines suggest that you can use definitions, glossaries and dictionaries as a way of explaining jargon and idioms. However, these approaches require your users to make more of an effort to understand you. A better, more user-friendly option is to avoid this kind of language whenever you can.

Plain language works best

Learn how to plan and write accessible, easy to understand content in our Writing for the web course.

Book a course at https://4syllables.com.au/