Should Your Site Be Written in Natural Language?

Georgina Laidlaw

Last week, we looked at plain English and saw how it can affect the marketing content and interface text on your website.

But if that’s plain English, what’s natural language?

What is natural language?

Like plain English, natural language is an aspect of communication that can boost understanding. In some cases, it can help improve conversions. And, carefully used, it can also help your interfaces seem more friendly and empathetic.

But there’s a catch. Where plain English makes things clearer, natural language can do the opposite.

First, let’s see what natural language is. In my books, it’s language that you could speak as easily as you’d read it. I’d class the kind of content you’re reading right now as pretty natural. I’m using contractions like “I’m” and “I’d”, colloquialisms like “pretty” (to mean “reasonably” or “fairly”), and, as always, I’m being pretty laissez-faire (there’s another colloquialism!) about starting my sentences with “And”s and “But”s. As you would in spoken English.

Natural language is usually easy to read, because you’re avoiding words you wouldn’t naturally say, and it typically has a predictable, chatty rhythm, so even long sentences can be easy to follow.

For these reasons, people are quick to commend natural language as “friendly” and a great way to create that “empathy” that digital marketers keep telling us is the holy grail to building brand loyalty online.

But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Behind the scenes

The problem with natural language (as opposed to plain English) is that natural language can be exclusive, rather than inclusive.

In fact, use a few idioms, or a couple of poorly chosen contractions (like who’ve or this’d, which I, for one, say all the time), and suddenly your readers are jarred right out of their snuggly, cuddly, “resonant” user experience. They might be jarred all the way off your website.

We saw the potential pitfalls of localized English recently, and natural language heightens the chances of your brand falling into such a pothole.

Take the Easy As Driving School. I mentioned earlier that we might say “Easy as” in Australia, but this is a colloquialism that communicates something about the speaker’s location and, in some people’s views, their socioeconomic background.

Weirdly, the website itself uses formal, unnatural language in its body text. As a nice counterpoint to the language-that’s-too-natural-is-a-problem argument, it’s certainly true that language that’s stiff and formal puts users off as well.

Using natural language

Obviously, if you’re using natural language, you need to use it carefully. Natural language has different goals from plain English, and it’s important to be aware of that before you begin to apply it. Natural language may more naturally lend itself to blog posts, ad campaigns, and emails more easily than interfaces or marketing pages.

But ultimately, where you choose to use natural language will depend on the nature of your brand and its audiences.

Once you’ve drafted the text, user test the content to make sure users know what you’re talking about—especially if you’re using it in interfaces, as Google does here.

Google's Nope button

Used inconsistently (*cough* Google *cough*), natural language can seem out of place. So make sure you use it as consistently as possible, and if in doubt, or if something doesn’t test well, opt for a plain English alternative.

Be aware also that natural language copy may need to be altered if you decide to target a new userbase—either people with slightly different pain points, in different segments, or from different cultures. All these things can affect what “natural” language is seen to be, and can render your carefully worded text silly, unprofessional, or just plain uncommunicative in the eyes of a new audience.

Ultimately, I tend to use natural language sparingly (other than in blog posts), and to balance it against plain English wherever I can. This helps to keep the content accessible to as many users as possible, by ruffling as few feathers as possible!

Do you use natural language on your site? How do you make sure it’s hitting the mark with users? Give us your take in the comments.