Accessible language

Accessible language is language that doesn’t exclude anyone. People can feel excluded when:

  • they don't understand words or phrases
  • language is used in ways that pose challenges to users of other technologies, such as text-to-speech software.

Why is accessible language important?

People are more likely to use your website if:

  • it is easy to navigate
  • its information is clear and easy to understand.

Accessibility standard requirements

Many of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Success Criteria relate to language. Guideline 3.1 contains six Success Criteria to make text content readable and understandable.

We recommend applying as many of the criteria as you can to make your content easier to read and understand. However, the New Zealand Government Web Accessibility Standard only requires Success Criterion 3.1.1 and Success Criterion 3.1.2 at present.

3.1.1 Language of page — set the main language of your page

To meet WCAG 2.0 Success Criterion 3.1.1, you must identify the default language of each web page. The easiest way to do this is to add the lang attribute with the correct ISO-639 language code to the <html> tag. This helps screen readers, and other software that processes text and language, to know how to pronounce or render the content.


  • <html lang="en"> to show a web page is in English
  • <html lang="en-nz"> to show a page is in New Zealand English
  • <html lang="mi"> to show a page is in Māori.

For more information on this requirement, see Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.1.

3.1.2 Language of Parts — indicate any changes in the language on the page

A web page will generally use one language. However, sometimes you may need to include words or a passage in another language. WCAG 2.0 Success Criterion 3.1.2 Language of Parts requires that you show a change in language if it happens. This is so that software can tell it apart from the page's main language.

The easiest way to do this is to add the lang attribute — with the correct language code — to the HTML element containing the text that’s in a different language. A common way to do this is to add the lang attribute to a <p>, <span>, or heading tag.

In this example, the opening <p> tag for the text in te reo Māori uses lang="mi" to show that the content of that p element is in te reo Māori:

<p>This sentence is in English, which is the page's main language.</p>

<p lang="mi">Kei roto tēnei rerenga kōrero i te reo Māori.</p>

<p>This is a new paragraph that defaults to the page's main language.</p>

For more information on this requirement, see Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.2.

Setting the language in PDF and Microsoft Word

The default language can also be set in PDF and Microsoft Word documents, as can the language of parts of the document where it is different from the default language.

In Microsoft Word, the way you do this depends on the version of Word. In Word 2010, the default language for the document as a whole can be set in the “Language” group of the Word Options dialog window.

To set the language for a passage of text in Word 2010, first select the text and then choose “Set Proofing Language…” from under the “Language” item in the Review tab.

In Adobe Acrobat Pro, you can set the PDF’s default language from the “Advanced” tab in the “Document Properties” dialog window. To open the “Document Properties” dialog, select “Properties…” from the File menu.

Setting the language of a specific passage of text in a PDF is a little more complicated. For more detailed instructions how to do this with Acrobat Pro, see technique PDF19: Specifying the language for a passage or phrase with the Lang entry in PDF documents.

Writing for the web

When you write for the web you need to think about:

  • how people read websites
  • the words you use
  • the structure of your page.

Writing for the web is different to writing for print because people don’t read websites in a set order and can start anywhere. People also tend to scan web pages so they can find, read and understand information quickly.

Make sure you:

  • use headings, subheadings, bulleted or numbered lists to break up the page and make it easy to scan
  • put the most important information at the beginning
  • use short sentences (around 12 words) and short paragraphs (around 3 or 4 sentences)
  • spell out the first use of an acronym or abbreviation on each page with the acronym or abbreviation after it in brackets
  • choose active verbs (‘He paid you’) over passive verbs (‘You were paid by him’)
  • are consistent and follow a style guide
  • are sparing if you use bold and italics
  • only use an underline on links
  • avoid ALL CAPITALS
  • check your grammar and spelling.

Use plain English

A document written in plain English is easy to read, understand, and act upon after just one reading.

In a plain English document, the language, structure and presentation should all work together to help the reader.

Make sure you:

  • think about your audience when you’re writing (who are they? what do or don’t they already know?)
  • use common, simple and familiar words
  • explain technical terms your audience may not be familiar with
  • use ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘us’
  • don’t use jargon
  • try to have only one main idea in each sentence
  • use meaningful headings. “How to apply” is better than “Introduction”
  • limit abstract nouns. This includes words ending in -ment, -tion, -ance, -ence, -ancy, -ency, -ity, -ism. Use:
    • “provide” instead of “make provision for”
    • “apply” instead of “make an application to”
    • “consider” instead of “give due consideration to”.

Have a look at the style guide for more tips on writing for the web in plain English.

Create a document structure

Giving your page a clear structure will help people understand the content. Well-structured headings also help screen-reader users to:

  • understand how content is ordered
  • quickly scan the page using those headings.

Break up your text into smaller, meaningful sections with headings. Make sure that the headings use the correct HTML markup (h1, h2, etc.) and that they reflect the rank and order of the sections they introduce.

You should:

  • use heading 1 (h1) for the page title
  • only use one h1 per page
  • use heading 2 (h2) for major headings
  • use heading 3 (h3) for sub-headings, and so on.

Flesch Reading Ease score

The Flesch Reading Ease test can help you determine how easy or hard your text is to read. The test gives you a score based on the length of words and sentences, and the number of syllables. A score of 65 or more is considered plain English.

For more information about this test, see Measuring content improvement.

You can test your content’s Reading Ease score:

Online tools allow you to test by direct input or by entering the page address. We recommend you test by direct input: testing with the page address may include navigational and other elements, which can negatively affect the score.

Not all tools will give the same piece of text the same reading ease score, but they should be reasonably similar.

We removed the sample HTML markup from this page and tested it using the online tools, which gave us scores between 60 and 66.

Write good links

Consistent navigation helps people understand how to move between your pages. Navigation links should look and be marked up consistently between pages.

Links need to explain clearly what information the reader will get by clicking on that link. Link text should be descriptive, unique and use keywords. It should still make sense when removed from its context, such as being read out loud as a list of the links found on a page.

These are examples of confusing link text (note: these links are examples only and don't work):

These examples are good — they describe what the links do or where they lead to:

Use respectful language

Respectful language is inclusive and an important part of accessibility. While the language used around disability is still contested at times, the following guidance should help you avoid pitfalls.

  • Keep disability-related language neutral and everyday. Disabled people are not abnormal, deformed or defective. Impairment is part of the human condition.
  • Avoid using the terms ‘invalid’, ‘handicap’, ‘special needs’ or ‘differently-abled’. Avoid any other terms with negative meanings.
  • Use the terms ‘disabled person’, ‘person with a disability’ or ‘has a physical disability’ — any of these are acceptable.
  • Don’t refer to groups or individuals only by their condition. Instead of talking about ‘the disabled’, refer to ‘people with disabilities’. Rather than refer to ‘the blind’, talk about 'blind people'. Similarly, refer to someone as having epilepsy instead of being ‘an epileptic’.
  • Disabled people use the terms disability and impairment interchangeably, even though they do have different meanings.
  • It's okay to say that someone is blind, but blindness and vision impairment are not necessarily the same. Not everyone with a vision impairment is blind.
  • People are not ‘confined to wheelchairs’ or ‘wheelchair-bound’. People use wheelchairs, and this enables them to live a mobile life.
  • People may identify themselves as either ‘deaf’ or ‘Deaf’.
    • Deaf people, with a capital ‘D’, mainly use sign languages to communicate. They see being Deaf as a cultural and linguistic identity rather than a disability. Deaf New Zealanders use New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) as their first language.
    • A deaf person might not be able to hear but might also not use sign language. They may prefer video captions rather than a sign language interpretation.