Unusual words or jargon: accessibility for content authors

  • Author: Access iQ ®
  • Date: 26 Nov 2012
  • Access: Premium

Success Criterion 3.1.3 Unusual words states:

A mechanism is available for identifying specific definitions of words or phrases used in an unusual or restricted way, including idioms and jargon. (Level AAA)

This is about making your content accessible to people who may not understand certain words or words presented in certain ways.

There may be times when you need to present content for a specific audience that requires specialised terminology. What Success Criterion 3.1.3 requires is that you provide some way for people who do not already know to find out what a term means.

There may be times when you need to deliver content that relies on figurative terms, or nonliteral usage, or highly technical words, or words in unusual contexts. To achieve Level AAA compliance you will need to provide a way for the full meaning to be made available.

Conformance will benefit people with cognitive, learning and intellectual disabilities, as well as all people who have difficulty with anything other than plain language.

There is also a benefit to people who use screen readers, in that magnification tends to limit the visible context and thus the opportunity to work out meaning from surrounding words. Compliant content will cope better with magnification.

This might all seem difficult to implement but it becomes approachable once you understand the specific meaning of four concepts used in Success Criterion 3.1.3:

  • mechanism
  • unusual or restricted
  • idioms and jargon

Once you have those clear, conformance becomes not only possible but a way of making your web content more effective.


Since Success Criterion 3.1.3 is all about identifying specific definitions, it's appropriate to check the definitions of the wording.

WCAG 2.0 consistently uses mechanism to mean simply a way to make something happen, a means to the accessible end. The success criteria here are met by making such a mechanism available. That can include requiring a user action to gain access to definitions or explanations for the terms in question, but also adding or editing text to provide the required definition in context.

He hadn't known he would be required to genuflect.

The nurse applied the sphygmomanometer to monitor his blood pressure.

When Success Criterion 3.1.3 talks about words or phrases used in an unusual or restricted way, it's addressing ordinary words that may have multiple meanings that may not be clear from the context in which they're used. They may require specific knowledge or context to understand and thereby limit the accessibility of the content.

There is no stated way of determining how unusual or restricted a word or phrase has to be before it requires explanation — other than solid user testing for accessibility. It is the job of the content manager, editor or author to make a judgement as to whether "He's bowled a maiden over" requires explanation, is defined adequately by the surrounding text or is common knowledge.

The word idioms in this context refers to phrases that cannot be understood by the literal words used alone, cannot be worked out without specific knowledge and cannot be translated word for word without losing meaning or value.

She would only turn up at work once in a blue moon.

This is an example of an idiomatic expression that word for word makes little sense and yet has a clear and common meaning to those who understand the concept being described, even if they don't know exactly what a blue moon is. To convey the meaning fully to someone unfamiliar with the phrase, it will be necessary to provide a mechanism to explain it, such as a link to an explanation on another webpage or elsewhere on the same page.

An equally accessible alternative is to find a better way of expressing the intended concept in the first place that does not rely on idiomatic understanding. Meaning conveyed by idiom can often be equally well expressed in plain language.

The word jargon is used in Success Criterion 3.1.3 to describe words used by people in a particular field of activity, whose meaning is perfectly clear to other people in that field but may be incomprehensible to people not in that field.

Generally, there is limited scope for rewriting jargon, as it tends to be specifically useful to certain audiences. However, jargon is a strong candidate for creating a linked glossary to which a user can refer for definitions and explanations.

In considering these definitions, we've identified several techniques for making unusual words and phrases accessible to all users. While these techniques satisfy the WCAG 2.0 at Level AAA, keep in mind using plain language helps everyone, not just those with disabilities. The simpler the language on your website, the more readable your content is, which means more people can access your site.

Using plain language

Beyond idiom and jargon, unusual words can also include words that are unnecessarily complex. Often, a simple word will do the job much better.

Consider the table below and how complex terms can be substituted by plain language.

Table comparing complex words with plain language
Complex word or term Plain language
Henceforth From now on, from today
In close proximity Close to, near
Provides guidance for Guides
Disseminate Spread
Getting on a soapbox Making a speech
User agent Software

Substituting complex words or terms with plain language not only makes content accessible to a wide variety of people (whether they use assistive technology or have a cognitive disability), it makes your content more readable. People are better able to scan-read your content, which studies have shown is how many people consume content on the internet, and using simpler language makes your content more readable by a screen reader.

Your performance will be scaled according to the fulfilment of key deliverables outlined in your job description.

How well you perform your job will be based on the outcomes provided in your job description.

Linking to definitions

If you can't use plain language to communicate your point or if you have been tasked with writing content with a very specific audience in mind, you can use links to provide explanations or definitions of the unusual words.

WCAG 2.0 doesn't specify where you place the link to definitions. However, the following techniques can be used to link to definitions of unusual terms:

  • Linking to a separate glossary of terms
  • Linking to a separate webpage with a definition
  • Linking to a definition elsewhere on the same page

Using inline definitions

An inline definition of a complex term or unusual word is one where you provide the definition within the body of the text.

The advantage of this approach is that you can retain the original wording while explaining it as you go. The disadvantage is that it requires you to have a high level of editorial control.

It's simple for a sighted user to close the window of a browser once it's no longer needed, or when they have clicked on an incorrect link. But the process of finding information on a webpage using a screen reader may not be as quick. So if the information they require is on the same webpage, it saves them from having to go back and forth between links to definitions and the original text.

He believed that sound travelled through the ether, which was thought to be a substance that filled interplanetary space.

It may be necessary to update the driver for your printer (the driver is software that contains specific instructions for your printer).

WCAG 2.0 references

Related Techniques for WCAG 2.0