Skip to main content
Design system

Plain language, symbols and forms

Clear and inclusive writing, navigating special characters

Plain language standards

Writing in plain language makes our content more accessible to a wide variety of people, including those with cognitive disabilities, lower reading literacy and less background knowledge of the topic or concept being covered. This also matters in the design of user interfaces.

The U.S. federal government has detailed plain language guidelines and a checklist. These are based on the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

While we are an independent media organization, a lot of the guidance is relevant to us.

In particular, we strongly recommend the following:

  • be concise
  • use short sentences and clear structure
  • use familiar, commonly understood words
  • define any uncommon words or concepts
  • avoid jargon, idioms and metaphors
  • avoid excessive words and punctuation
  • use the simplest tense possible
  • use lists and tables to simplify complex material

Icons, emojis and ASCII art


Meaning of icons, buttons and other elements should be labeled with visible text whenever possible. In all cases, interactive elements should have appropriate aria-labels for screen reader users.

Emojis and other symbols

Avoid relying on emojis or symbols. Emojis and other symbols may have confusing or unintended meanings, especially across generations and cultures. They are also annoying for blind and low-vision screen reader users. They should be avoided unless they are central to the content.

If you need to use emojis, consult Unicode's emoji list to ensure the emojis translate well and appear as you expect across different devices and systems. They should be visible with sufficient contrast in light and dark mode.

Make sure to include visible text descriptions alongside all emojis to clarify meaning.


ASCII art typed directly into a page is not accessible to screen readers.

However, screenshots of ASCII art with appropriate alt text included are okay.

Create the ASCII art on your own device and take a screenshot of the art you produced. Then you can post the screenshot and include alt text describing the ASCII art for blind and low-vision users.

When a screenshot is not an option, you can provide a text alternative of the ASCII art before it and then include an anchor link for users to skip past the ASCII art.

Text decoration

Underlines (example), strikethroughs (example) and other text decorations are often not recognized by screen readers and can confuse other users, too, so they are not recommended.

If you must use text decoration to convey meaning, then you must also provide other ways for users to understand the meaning of the decorated text.

For example, when using a strikethrough to visually label something as "completed" or "done," you should also include a label next to the struck-through text that explicitly says "completed" or "done."

  • Buy ingredients (completed)
  • Travel home (completed)
  • Cook dinner

You can follow a similar approach when using underlines and strikethroughs to denote added and removed content in an updated version of a document, perhaps one being shown to readers as part of a news article:

The new content (added) in the document can thus be differentiated from the old content (removed) more easily.

Hashtags and CamelCase

CamelCase involves capitalizing the first letter of each word in a multiple-word hashtag. This allows screen readers to distinguish words in a hashtag and increases legibility for everyone.

For example, use #TheWashingtonPost instead of #thewashingtonpost.

Capitalize the letters in acronyms and initials as well.

For example, use #WPMedia instead of #Wpmedia.

Forms and user input

Clear error messages should be provided so that users know when and how to correct their input.

Similarly, avoid user prompts or notices that disappear automatically, as this creates a frustrating user experience when the user cannot access something they need in time. Label all fields clearly, and don't rely on placeholder text that disappears when a user begins filling out the field.

Don't require users to drag things around to fill out a form or complete some other task. Remember that not everyone uses a computer mouse.

WebAIM provides more guidance on accessible forms.