5. Choosing your words

Use ordinary, everyday words that your reader would use in conversation

Use words your readers are likely to know. Familiar words will help ensure your reader is getting the correct meaning from your document. You can still use interesting words! Just avoid using fancy ones for the sake of being impressive.

Also, remember that shorter words are not always better. The clearest word is the best word to choose, regardless of length.

See Appendix B: Choosing Everyday Words in the back matter of this textbook for suggestions on word replacements.

Replace wordy expressions with single words

See Appendix C: Replacing Wordy Expressions in the back matter of this textbook for a list of common wordy expressions and simpler alternatives.


Explain specialized and technical terms

Every sector has its own specialized language. The postsecondary setting is no different. Some examples of specialized postsecondary terms:

  • admission requirements
  • credential
  • grade point average (or GPA, which is an initialism — see next section)
  • prerequisite
  • transcript

If you need to use special terminology, make sure you provide a definition — preferably within the sentence or in the next sentence. Remember that your audience will include people who do not have all your knowledge about postsecondary systems.

Write out acronyms or initialisms the first time you use them

An acronym is a word formed from the first initial of each word in a phrase. SCUBA (self contained underwater breathing apparatus) is an example of an acronym. An initialism is similar, but each letter is pronounced separately. CPU (computer processing unit) is an example of an initialism.

Postsecondary education has a lot of acronyms and initialisms. Sometimes it is easy to forget that other people may not know what they mean. That is why it is important to spell them out fully, at least the first time we use them.

Use they/them as a gender neutral pronoun for a hypothetical person whose gender is not known

In the past, writers were encouraged to use he or she, he/she, or s/he as gender neutral pronouns in hypothetical situations. The result was policies that looked like this:

If the student has not paid the remainder of his/her tuition by the deadline, he/she may be removed from the course.

In recent years, there has been more awareness that gender is not binary and some people use they or them as their pronouns, rather than he or she. Now, we regularly use they and them as singular gender neutral pronouns, or when we do not know the person’s pronouns. The most gender inclusive version of this policy would look like this:

If the student has not paid the remainder of their tuition by the deadline, they may be removed from the course.

Notice that the verb changes to agree with the subject they. (In other words, make sure you write “they are” and not “they is” even when using “they” as a singular pronoun.)

The use of they as a gender neutral singular pronoun in English has a long history, dating back to the 1300s. In the 20th century, it was seen as grammatically incorrect, but with a better understanding of gender inclusivity, it is now widely accepted and used[1].

Another gender inclusive option is to make the subject (in this case, “students”) plural:

If students have not paid the remainder of their tuition by the deadline, they may be removed from the course.


  1. 8. Baron, D. (2018, September 18). A brief history of singular "they." Oxford English Dictionary Blog. https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/


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