Skip to content

#62 Proper word choice

June 6, 2011

Photo from

Expat Aid Workers know the importance of language and communication. They often speak more than one language themselves (no comment on how well) and they usually work on a daily basis in the office, at regional workshops, on email, by Skype, or in the community with people who speak a multitude of languages.

But as an EAW, even more important than being able to communicate in the languages needed for actual program and project implementation is your ability to ensure proper word choice when describing the activities that you and your agency are involved in.

Your talent for proper word choice will come in especially handy when your task involves:

Defining goals. Strategic planning requires the establishment of goals. This is usually done at a “participatory workshop” and it’s a great opportunity to show off superior intelligence and management of modern approaches to development by debating word choice. Your facipulator will always be sure that everyone in the room, no matter how many people there are, has the opportunity to comment on any statement that he or she has cobbled together from the 6 flip charts that were written up during group work time. (This is the only possible way to ensure true participation). Even if after 5 hours of debate, your facipulator says ‘let’s not word smith,’ know that your particular comment on wording has fundamental importance and value. The difference between an agency that ‘works to improve living standards’ and an agency that ‘supports efforts to ensure better living standards’ is significant and must be argued until there is a conclusion reached that everyone in the room can agree on.

Describing your target population. The fluid nature of aid work means that the terms for the people you are working with need to undergo continual updating. This is especially important when a term has acquired a negative connotation, a concept has become an acronym that’s lost its meaning, a well-publicized study comes out questioning current use of a term and establishing a new one, or there are funding opportunities for a newly defined target population. The changing term has nothing to do with any change in the target population itself, of course. It has everything to do with your agency’s modernized and nuanced understanding of the target population or the donor’s invention of a new and improved term to describe an existing, narrowed or expanded target group.  ‘Marginalized’ is so 2009, use ‘excluded.’ ‘OVC’ is not really accurate, plus what about all the other children in the same conditions who are not OVCs, don’t they deserve our support too? ‘Street children’ is really degrading, use ‘children living in the street.’ Hire a facipulator and hold a participatory workshop to decide on the ever tricky ‘the poor’ vs ‘poor people’ vs ‘those lacking in financial resources’ vs ‘economically excluded’ vs ‘people living in LDCs / non-OECD countries’ vs ‘the Bottom — or is it Base? — of the Pyramid (eg, the BOP).’

Proper word choice makes anything seem possible! Photo:

Describing the issues you work on. Not only do the terms for your target population change, but the lexicon describing the actual issues you work on also shifts. These subtle language changes need to be managed or you risk looking like a top-down agency or being behind the times and losing out on funding opportunities. Don’t say ‘building capacity’ because that implies there was no capacity to begin with, say ‘strengthening existing capacities’. Be clear on whether your program is about Women in Development, Gender in Development, Women and Development or Gender and Development. Be careful how you use variations of the term ’empower’ as everyone already knows empowerment comes from within so you can’t empower anyone, people empower themselves — a critical term to adjust, even if your program approach doesn’t change at all. Then there is ‘equity’ vs ‘equality’… and ‘working for’ vs ‘working with’… and ‘promoting democracy’ vs ‘promoting good governance.’ These terms can’t be taken lightly because based solely on word choice in a single paragraph or on a home page or in a brief chat during a coffee break, an experienced EAW or donor will evaluate your program approach, quality of work and intent; categorize you and your organization as good, bad or mediocre; and decide whether you are worthy of partnering with (funding) or not.

Giving input to strategic documents. Colleagues often circulate draft documents ‘for your input’ and you are probably too busy to think deeply about them. You were out all last week word smithing goal statements in a participatory workshop, and anyway, who has time to read more than a 2-page summary these days!? It sits in the ‘procrastination folder’ until you get a 3rd reminder. In this case, the best thing to do is use track changes and make some grammatical changes; eg., fix improper use of its vs it’sincidence vs incidents, affect vs effectprincipal vs principle. Then highlight instances of forgetting to spell out an acronym at first usage and find/substitute all mentions of ‘beneficiary’ with the term ‘stakeholder’ and all instances of ‘contractor’ with ‘partner.’ If you’re feeling really generous, you can modernize the proposal by adding comments like ‘mightn’t we use ‘excluded’ here instead of ‘marginalized?‘ or ‘consider using BOP here‘ (leave it up to your colleague to Google ‘BOP’ and choose between ‘base’ and ‘bottom’). Improving word choice can significantly increase the proposal’s chances of winning without even having to change your agency’s habitual approach. If you word things properly no one will bother to look at the strength and merit of the proposal’s underlying ideas and methodology, which you’ve actually not spent any time considering. Win!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Torsten permalink
    June 7, 2011 7:37 pm

    Yep. Nothing to add.


  1. #3 from 2012: The Stubborn Problem of The "Village Elite" : Education Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: