Cynthia Baur, Ph.D.
Office of the Associate Director for Communication
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
I assume all plain language experts who teach, edit, and review have confronted that exasperated sigh from a colleague: So you don’t like the word I’m using. What do you want me to use instead? This question often comes with an eye roll, grimace, or note of panic because of an approaching deadline.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Office of the Associate Director for Communication published Everyday Words for Public Health Communication in November 2015. It is Version 1 of plain language suggestions – not mandates – to answer that “what instead” question. This blog is the story of how the document came to be.
When teaching a plain language class a couple of years ago at the, I got the 100th staff request (maybe a slight exaggeration) for a CDC plain language glossary. Public health shares some vocabulary with medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy, but also has its own specialized terms about programs, methods, and health risks that affect groups of people and health behaviors. Staff who want to use plain language often don’t know legitimate alternatives to the jargon.
As CDC’s Plain Writing Act official, I’d resisted an agency glossary. Too hard, I’d say, or it’ll take too much time. I also didn’t want to promote a “plug and play” approach to language. As a communicator, I know words get their full meaning from the context, and I worried substituting one word for another without thinking about meaning could result in simplistic or odd text. The entire plain language effort might come off looking silly or wrong-headed, undercutting progress. Lastly, I envisioned unending negotiations over jargon that staff might feel uncomfortable giving up. I feared I’d never get agreement on even a short list of terms.
In November, 2013, a student project was my nudge to try a glossary, and we began with 100 frequent public health terms from CDC.gov, the agency’s main public communication channel. The list grew and shrank over the next 2 years as staff weighed in. We began with the jargon and provided plain language alternatives. Staff asked for “before” and “after” examples, and we found and rewrote widely-applicable, actual sentences to show multiple plain language techniques “in action.”
The project did take a long time and a lot of negotiations to agree on terms, alternatives, and examples. But, our staff also had a unique opportunity to reflect carefully on our jargon, what it means to us, what we think it means to others, and how we can rethink our public communication.
The current version isn’t the final word. We plan quarterly updates, and we encourage CDC programs to develop supplements with terms from their specialized health areas. Everyday Words will also help us implement the CDC Clear Communication Index, a science-based tool with clear communication criteria, including the recommendation to use the language of your audience.
On this blog or the mailbox on our website, please let us know what you think about Everyday Words for Public Health Communication and share your experiences tackling jargon in your organization. What are your organization’s Everyday Words?
About the author:
Cynthia Baur, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor for Health Literacy and the senior official for the Plain Writing Act, Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). She chairs the CDC Health Literacy Council, manages the agency’s health literacy web site and blog, and co-chairs the HHS Health Literacy Workgroup and Healthy People Health Communication and Health IT Topic Area. She co-created the CDC Clear Communication Index.