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Quality Web Site Language

By Grant McNamara

Well written web sites don't just happen, they are designed and engineered. You don't just run the spell checker through the text and consider the job done. You need to review the words, and examine them carefully. Put yourself in the place of your prospects and customers. How will they perceive and respond to what is written?


Review your text for euphemisms and consider rewording them for clearer meanings. A euphemism is a milder or vaguer word or phrase used in place of one that might seem too harsh or embarrassing in a particular context. The commonest subjects for euphemisms are bodily functions (to relieve yourself), sexual activity (to make love), death (to pass away), economics (downsizing), and violence (to do away with).

We all need to resort to this kind of language in order to respect people's sensitivities, and our own. But there are two kinds of euphemisms that are questionable:

• euphemisms that blur the meaning or cause confusion (e.g. cloakroom for toilet).

• euphemisms that attempt to show unpleasant activities in a more positive light (e.g. ethnic cleansing for the wholesale killing of peoples).

Some euphemisms have even become official clichés, e.g. helping the Police with their enquiries (= under interrogation and imminent arrest). Readers outside your locality often confuse euphemisms. So check your site carefully for such ambiguities.

Confusable Meanings

There are many pairs of words, which are similar in form and meaning and are often confused. For example affect and effect are often confused. Affect means to cause a change in, where as effect means to bring about. Always check your site carefully for such words (its/it's and to/too are classics).

If you would like a free list of commonly confused pairs of words and their meanings, send me an email at [email protected].


Tautology is the repetition of the same idea or meaning in a phrase or sentence, as in free gift (all gifts are free), a new innovation, and to return again. Some tautologies are contained within a small group of words based around the noun, for example future prospects, past history, general consensus. We use tautologies mainly in speech, but if we are not careful they creep into our written text. Such words can often be dropped because their meanings are contained in other words within the sentence. Using tautologies in written text is not usually good style and you should avoid it.

Formal and Informal Language

The different contexts and levels of formality in which English is used are called registers. At a broad level, English, like all languages, varies from the formal and technical to the informal and casual. Register also takes account of the various types of communication, such as conversation, informal writing, journalism and broadcasting (formal writing includes essays, speeches and academic books).

In conversation, for example, use of the personal pronouns I and you is relatively high, and contradictions such as I've, you're an don't predominate over the fuller forms. And in conversation slang and colloquial words occur regularly. In more formal writing, colloquialisms are uncommon, the pronoun one is more likely to be used than the you, upon is likely to be used as well as on, and more formal words such as ascertain and desirous are likely to occur.

Each mode of writing and speaking calls for its own different kind of language. In its most formal register, a machine might be said to be malfunctioning; in a neutral or everyday register it might be described as not working, and at the informal extreme it will be said to be broken or kaput. Formal words are usual in instructions and notices; alight (from a bus or train), conveyance (for vehicle), enquire (rather than ask), notify (rather than tell), and select (rather than choose). In more general contexts, purchase is more formal than buy, edifice more formal than building, endeavour than try, and purloin than steal. The language of technical writing has its own terminology; for example gravid, meaning pregnant, occurs only in medicine and biology. Most of these formal words can be turned on their heads and made to look silly (Do you really live in this edifice?).

Always consider providing your visitor with a glossary of words and phrases. And remember anyone, anywhere in the entire World can and will look at your site. They all need to be able to understand what you mean, and they must feel comfortable reading the words.

And if you're considering having your web site translated/presented into one or more foreign languages; reviewing the words on your site takes on a special significance. Poor translations are highly likely to occur if we haven't made a careful review of our text, taking account of the points discussed above. What are the potential pitfalls and what can you do to ensure a trouble free translation project?

The first step is to define exactly what you want the translation to achieve; the terms of reference. Think about whom your audience is and what type of language they want to read. There are many ways to write a sentence. As we've discussed, you can use simple language, formal or informal language, technical or difficult.

Language translation isn't just taking one language and rewriting it into another language. The translation needs to convey not only the meaning and substance of the source text, but also convey the message in the same theme and at the same reader level. Thus a good translation will be at a level equivalent to the source language in complexity and formality. Put another way, the translation must use the same register.

The reading level, for example, can be checked using either the Flesch or Flesch-Kincaid readability measures. These measures can be displayed at the end of a spell check automatically in Microsoft Word.

No one style of vocabulary and grammar is superior to another; it is there appropriateness to the occasion that matters. But read the text of your web site carefully, and consider the language you are using. Are you using technical language that only specialists in the field will understand? If your site is aimed to sell goods or inform ordinary people, will they understand the words and is the level of formality appropriate?
Are there confusing words?
Are you using slang that no one outside your locality would understand?

A good quality translation agency will provide a thorough language site review before they perform any translation. Both client and agency benefits because the results of the translation project will be of a far higher quality.

I hope this has given you something to consider so that you can ensure your web site is as good as the quality of your products, services and information your organisation provides.

Copyright (c) 2002 Grant McNamara, All Rights Reserved. This article may
be freely distributed and published. If you wish to publish the article, out
of courtesy, please email me and advise the url.
Author Information:
Grant McNamara <>
[email protected]
Grant McNamara is a consultant specializing multilingual software
development and internet support.

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