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Cognitive Accessibility Design Pattern: Use Literal Language

User Need

I need to understand the meaning of the text. I do not want unexplained, implied or ambiguous information because I may misunderstand jokes and metaphors.

What to Do

Use literal and concrete language. When possible, use concrete terms and examples that refer to objects or events that you can see, hear or touch.

Do not use metaphors and similes unless you include an explanation.

How it Helps

Many people do not understand non-literal content. For example, an autistic person may not understand jokes and similes. Sometimes instructions have jokes and similes to make the content friendlier. However, this confuses the user who now cannot do her job as needed.

You can explain any non-literal language by:

  • adding a simple language term in brackets next to any non-literal text such as metaphors and similes,
  • providing a pop up definition, or
  • using supported markup (such as personalization semantics [[personalization-semantics-help-1.0]]).

In non-text media, explain non-literal content as part of the media or include it in a separate file or track. See best practices.

More Details

Make sure the meaning remains clear when you replace non-literal text with literal text. Check this when providing literal text in a popup or other alternative.

Getting Started

Start by putting clear literal text on headings, labels, navigational elements, instructions, error messages, and any content that may affect the user’s rights or wellbeing. This will increase the usability in critical places without changing your writing style.



  1. Literal text and concrete language. For example:
    • If you are experiencing anxiety disorders before starting take a deep breath, tell yourself you can do it and get started. Anxiety can include nervousness, fear, dizziness, or shortness of breath.


  1. Non-literal text. For example:
    • If you are experiencing cold feet before starting, take a deep breath and jump in.

User Stories and Personas

User Story



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