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English is a highly versatile language that has a rich and extensive vocabulary from which to choose. You may have learned at school that using a variety of words makes your writing more interesting, particularly when writing a creative piece. An extensive vocabulary also offers us many choices and allows us to create an accurate picture for our readers.

For example, when we want to convey the concept of ‘big’ we can choose from ‘huge’, ‘great’, ‘massive’, ‘extensive’ or ‘large’. There are subtle differences between these words and we make our selection based on these differences. For example, we might think of a tiger as a big animal but a mammoth as huge or massive. When writing a business communication to a client, we might consider ‘big’ too informal and choose ‘large’ instead.

Avoiding use of the same word over and over can certainly help reduce reader boredom. But choosing a specific word, and using that word consistently throughout the communication, is sometimes necessary to create clarity. When writing procedures, confusion can arise from using different words to describe the same action or item. For example, the reader may conclude that ‘Click on the icon’ is a different action from ‘Select the icon’. In a training manual, switching between the words ‘activity’, ‘exercise’ or ‘assignment’ implies that these are 3 different types of tasks.

Frequent changes in terminology can also become confusing if your reader is not familiar with some of the alternative terms you have used. This could be because they don’t have an extensive vocabulary, or perhaps English is not their first language or they are unfamiliar with colloquial usage.  Consider the following examples.

injectionAn act of injecting somebody with a drug or other substance.
A large sum of money that is spent to help improve a situation or business (e.g. cash injection).
shotThe past tense of shoot.
An act of firing a gun.
(In sport) an act of kicking, hitting, or throwing the ball, especially in an attempt to score a point.
A photograph or a particular sequence of pictures in a film.
An attempt at something.
An injection of a drug, vaccination.
A small amount applied at one time.
A small measure or serving (such as one ounce) of undiluted liquor or other beverage.
jabA sudden strong hit with something pointed or with a fist.
(Colloquial British) An injection to help prevent you from getting a disease (e.g. the flu jab).
needleA very fine slender piece of polished metal with a point at one end and a hole or eye for thread at the other, used in sewing.
A similar, larger instrument used in crafts such as crochet, knitting, and lacemaking.
The pointed hollow end of a hypodermic syringe.
A very fine metal spike used in acupuncture.
A thin pointer on a dial, compass, or other instrument.
A stylus used to play records.
An etching tool.
A steel pin exploding the cartridge of a breech-loading gun.
The sharp, stiff, slender leaf of a fir or pine tree.
A pointed rock or peak.
An obelisk.
A beam used as a temporary support during underpinning.
vaccinationTreatment with a vaccine to produce immunity against a disease.

Given the terms ‘injection’, ‘shot’, ‘jab’ and ‘needle’ are colloquial or have multiple meanings, I would rule them all out. The words ‘jab’ and ‘needle’ also imply pain which may deter some people from coming forward to be vaccinated. If the purpose of my communication is to strongly encourage people to be vaccinated, it would be wise to avoid words with obvious negative connotations.

‘Vaccination’ may sound a little clinical, but it is accurate, has one clear meaning and is used by the World Health Organization (WHO). If I were writing a business communication for a global or diverse audience, this would therefore be my choice of term, which I would stick to throughout the entire communication.

ClearPotentially unclear
All employees of the company are offered a free flu vaccination each year. You will receive an email telling you when you can get your vaccination.All employees of the company are offered a free flu shot each year. You will receive an email telling you when you can get your jab.

Our goal in business writing must always be to make our writing easy to understand on first reading. We also have an obligation to try and ensure our message is not misunderstood. One way we can achieve this is by carefully choosing our words and avoiding unfamiliar terminology.

For professional plain English writing and editing services, contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638 or email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au



Oxford English Dictionary