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Ask 18F — How do you tackle the problem of associating plain language to formal governmental terms?

Ask 18F is an advice column that answers questions sent in by federal employees. Our technical experts aim to provide you helpful resources and a good starting point to tackle your problem. Got a question? No matter how small the task or how big the project, email us at 18f@gsa.gov.

Dear 18F: To help people search for data in their own words, we’re looking to integrate plain-language synonyms for governmental terminology. For example, “food stamps” for “SNAP”. Are you aware of any existing synonym lists, word lists, dictionaries or similar that exist in digital form today? How have you tackled the problem of associating plain language to formal governmental terms?

Cordelia Yu - Content Designer

I wish we had a giant list or thesaurus of plain language synonyms! That would be a great tool to give folks who are joining new projects. (Sometimes I wistfully talk about about adding one to the TTS Handbook.) Since building a shared dictionary for all of government would be an impossibly huge task, I’ve started creating smaller ones for my team when joining a new project. These documents are most successful when everyone is contributing, so don’t let it live as a read-only page on your intranet. Put it somewhere where everyone can add or update terms, like in a shared Google Sheet or your project wiki, and then make sure you link to it in your shared resources. Use the tools your team uses most often, an imperfect tool that more people use often is better than a perfect tool that people barely use.

If you’re testing your content with users, watch for words and phrases that are confusing. Whenever a new person joins your team, give them the glossary and have them ask you whenever they encounter something new and add it to list.

But having and curating the list is only the first part. The second is making useful content.

Teach your content creators (or editors) to use the plain-language and common terms along with official terms so search engines know they are related. This is an intentional practice that can take writers some time to adjust to. One practice we have at 18F is a weekly workshop for the content team to share things we’re working on for critique or suggestions for improvement. This works really well when not everyone is a subject matter expert because it means someone is coming with fresh eyes to catch the things that aren’t obvious to folks who are closer to the material.

If your content management system’s tagging system lets you create synonyms, make sure they’re set up properly (if not, tag them with the relevant common and plain language terms). You’ll also have to periodically make sure to update the dictionary of synonyms in your search engine. I wish there was a good way to get content management systems to understand human documents, but this probably means that you’re keeping two separate lists: a thesaurus for your content creators and editors and a metadata table for your content management system and search engine.

I wish there was a faster way to get to a good glossary, but by making it a regular practice, you can use the collective wisdom of your whole team to create something more comprehensive and useful than you can alone.

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