::Edit 2012::

This post gets a ludicrous number of hits for something that includes a definition of something that isn't really a proper technical term at all.

A "phoneme" is a discrete unit of sound as used in speech. It is therefore smaller than a syllable. The sound associated in English with both the letter "s" (as in 'less') and the softened letter "c" (as in 'space') is a phoneme.

homophoneme, if it existed, would therefore be a single sound that can be written in more than one way. The sibilant sound in both "less" and "space" is the same phoneme, hence these are homophonemic.

My original post is much more about spelling than about sounds. Homophones are words that are spelt differently but sound identical, like your, you're, yore or their, there, they're. In both of these examples in UK English the single syllable sound is composed of two phonemes and in US English of three phonemes (arguably, some US dialects differentiate "there" and "they're"). It is silly to spell these things differently, but it is convention to do so, so we do.

Languages that use symbols to represent syllables don't (typically) have this sort of problem.

::Original Post::

Words that are wrote differently but said the same. There aren't all that many of them, and most of them are short. One syllabic.

They don't confuse us when we say them aloud, so why do we write them different?

There is an honest answer, and a dishonest one.

The honest answer is short, incomplete, and not very satisfying, although it is, as forestated, honest:


Convention means that we have all agreed, and that latecomers agree that they also agree, as they arrive, that we will all do it the same way, and having thus agreed, he will cause consternation who chooses not to agree with, and follow, said convention.

(A little aside on consternation. Normally one person can't be consternated, or consterned - neither participle really exists, but consternation is a description for groups only - rather like convention and for similar reasons. I like to coopt consternation for the feeling of confusion that arises from an idea being expressed in a form of words that is sufficiently exotic, eccentric our outlandish (all of which mean the same thing, and are therefore heterophonic homologs) that it causes a moment's hesitation whose wellspring is the confounding of "did I hear that right", "did s'he really say that", "is that what s'he meant", "is s'he trying to confuse me" "?" (The question mark is for all four. It looks wierd in the middle of a sentence.)

Convention is handy because it means that we don't have to provide a justification for something that we just feel suits us. The last phrase is my test for a convention.

The dishonest answer is that we spell them differentwise to avoid confusion. Now I may have already mentioned that we aren't confused when we're speaking aloud. The dishonest answerer goes on to say that yes, well, but, when you speak aloud there are all sorts of additional clues as to the meaning of words, such as body language, intonation, facial expression.

Do you think you need these additional clues in order to differentiate "there" from "their" or "one" from "won" ?

"Their one won there."
"There won one their."

Wierdly, the first is a "correct" sentence, the second is nonsense, but if you say them aloud they mean the same thing.

In French, noone ever confuses a bucket, a seal (wax) , an idiot and a jump, even though seau, sceau, sot and saut are all nouns! (And pronounced exactly the same, regardless of what some linguists may claim.)

The truth* is that it is a convention, and while unnecessary, it is sometimes handy - like describing in print the difference in meaning between "their" and "there", the reader knows which one you are referring to.

*For a given value of quince jelly

Grammar (we love you)

Stephen Fry's blog of last week (here) raised some points that needed to be raised, and raised them in his necessarily extensible, and indeed extended verbiage.

Long, and rightly so, in his criticism of the pedants - that I like to call Grammar Nazis, who believe that there is such a thing as "correct English".

I believe there is such a thing as comprehensible English. I encounter it all the time. Truly incomprehensible English is a very rare thing indeed, and usually requires a special skill, not to interpret it, but to create it.

Ibelieve there is such a thing as correct grammar, too. It is any grammar that correctly describes a given figure of speech.

Following the rules of grammar is rather like following the contours on an ordnance survey map, instead of following the roads. The contours are there to describe the landscape, not to keep it from floating away. Shall I nail it down? I shall though. Following the rules of grammar is not correct, nor is it safe, helpful, or likely to result in clarity, or even comprehensibility. The rules of grammar are there to help people to talk about language, possibly to help them understand their own language, and certainly to help people to make sense of a foreign language.

Grammarians are there to invent the language that describes language. Grammar is there to describe language.

I do not, and neither do, nor should, you, follow the rules of grammar. We lead them.


The Proof of the Blogging

Bloggers fall into three categories.
  • Those who don't proofread their entries before posting because it's a blog
  • Those who don't proofread their entries before posting because they've never heard of proofreading
  • Those who don't proofread their entries until after posting
The proof of the blog is in the posting; something about the act of committing something changes the state of mind of the author, and he can suddenly spot errors much more easily. Outside the blogosphere this generally manifests itself as the discovery of glaring errors in your document when you see it, upside down, printed out on your boss's/customer's desk, or indeed when your customer has approved it for publication.

At least in a blog we can go back and make corrections to something already published at almost no cost at all.

I therefore advocate proofing of blog entries, but only after publication.

A Little Writing

Well folks, NaNoWriMo is almost upon us again. I began something last year, and then slipped a disk and spent three months on my back. This year, I'm going to go for it once again. I hope I don't get another serious injury. Writing isn't usually all that dangerous, no matter how much mightier than the sword the keyboard may be.



I didn't know how happy I was, until I discovered that I had been living without knowing of the existence of "i18n" and "L1on".

These abominations are what I think of as tertiary jargon. Primary jargon arises organically, by accident, often from slang, corruptions, abreviations and audibility adjustments (a lot of printing jargon uses words that are easily distinguished against a lot of background noise). Primary jargon has a certain nobility; its very existence justifies its existence. Secondary jargon is a conscious invention in the presence of a need for a word - usually to differentiate between concepts or items where no differentiation is needed in other domains or contexts. Sometimes it is created in response to an innovation. Tertiary jargon is invented by people who think that jargon is cool, and is used by people who want to show that they are with it, fab hip and trendy, and generally on the bus. Primary and secondary jargons can both enrich language, provide extra meaning, and give practical benefits - even if in some cases the benefit is restricted to those using the jargon, such as nautical and theatrical jargons. Tertiary jargon is a form of weaseling; it leaves us with less meaning and less understanding.

True, it takes less time to type, and to say, "i18n" than to type or say "internationalization" (although if you type at up to 100wpm who cares?).

Well I've just been handed an internationalization project and you can be sure that on all communications and documents I shall be writing it in full. I can't think of a reason why I would ever want to write it in a text message; I think if I had a word like that to say to someone that I'd call them and say it aloud.


en > en

I wonder sometimes about the sanity of it - but of course I understand the mind-set that says that if we internationalize our software that we should support everything classified as a language. Essentially it becomes a political, or at the very least politic choice, though, to have an enUS version and enUK, enOZ, enSA, enMY, etc, etc... Taking this to its equitable conclusion results in a profusion of languages where every pidgin, dialect and creole is included. There are at least 10 versions of French that are spoken worldwide - even frCA is at least as different from frFR as enUS is from enUK.

Going to these lengths is perhaps laudable, and probably, in the end, worthwhile, if you are the world's largest software company. And I'm all for diversity of language. The more variation there is the more modes of expression there are. At home I often switch between en (Int) and fr (FR) depending on the subject of the conversation - a facility that I value enormously.

I've been looking at Facebook's recent initiative to produce an English (UK) version. Now Facebook may use American spellings, but the language it uses is largely international English - whether they mean to or not. And what is International English?

It is a subset of English that has a reduced vocabulary. In software, if your interface designer is disciplined, you can end up with an en(Int) version unintentionally, just because he tried to keep it simple.

Most of the "translations" from enUS to enUK in Facebook are not translations at all. A few good writers have improved the style and clarity of some of the onscreen text, and the result is more comprehensible to all English speakers, native or not, worldwide. (There are also a few pointless "corrections" by the grammar Nazis, and some varied spellings. Surprisingly little fighting over -ise -ize.)

It seems to me that a good designer should consider the political implications of his choice of language. I suspect however that in many cases the designer isn't considering it at all. He is either making the assumption that he will cause offense if he only uses Perugian Italian, Parisian French or NY Engligh - in which case he should damn well say so, or he is making the assumption that a Taiwanese won't be able to use software with an interface in ch(PRC) - which is quite untrue.

When you set the editing language in MSWord, you're doing something else altogether; MSWord tries to help you to write without error in all the languages + variations that you speak. It is hence a requirement that every language with a written tradition be represented in the editing and correction tools, but by no means is this necessary for the interface itself. Indeed, it would make me completely crazy if the tool bar and keyboard changed language everytime I change the editing language.

Selection of languages for the interface should be more than just pragmatic. It should meet user expectations. An interface that can be presented in simplified English, simplified Chinese, French, Italian, Russian, modern Spanish and Japanese (westernized or standard) will meet the expectations of, and be usable by, most of the human race - and most of them will be happier that you have piled your resources into making the software efficient and easy to use, than you could possibly have made them by giving them an interface in their particular regional variation of their particular language.

Indeed, the grammar Nazis can't possibly object if you tell them explicitly that you have used an "internationalized" version of their language. And the minorities that seek to gain political capital from complaints that their language has been marginalized? If you can't ignore them, as they deserve, then get the buggers to pay for a localized version; you answer should always be "our product can be translated into any language". Give them access to the language files. After all, you'll offend far more easily by making errors in arLE (okay, that one's a bit more obscure: Lebanese Arabic), than you would by doing just one version of Arabic (there is an ar(Int)), and letting users customize it to a local version if they need to.

Ok. This wasn't mean to be a lengthy rant. The message is pretty simple. Keep it translatable. Limit your standard package to languages spoken by four fifths of the world. It's not as if your interface is a novel by Thomas Hardy. If you have more than about 150 different words in your interface, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.



The training went better than I expected. That is to say that everything went wrong that I was expecting to go wrong. Lots of technical problems, couldn't use printers, couldn't access systems. The ususal.

In the end although I wasn't satisfied with the training, most of the trainees seem to have been.

Goes to show.

Article in the NS from two weeks ago (that I am reading at the moment) implies that resources for mental effort are limited, and use energy the same way as physical effort - which would explain why going to bed earlier has no effect on alertness, even over several days. As usual NS is careful to limit its conclusions to the very specific subject matter under discussion, which is the notion of willpower overcoming desire for short term gratification.

NS articles are very defensive in this way; they are restricted to drawing conclusions that are within the field under discussion, and I suspect that the writers are obliged by editorial policy to seek dissenting or at the very least doubting views.

This kind of discipline is very useful in any descriptive text. If the writer begins by defining the scope carefully, and remains strictly within it, he protects himself not only from speculation (which is unprofessional), but also from distraction and irrelevance (which is poor style).

The user guide that I am working on at the moment describes a product that engages the user in three ways
  1. via the tasks that the user has to peform 90% of the time
  2. via some common interfaces that are used for several different functions
  3. via the layout and ergonomics of the main interface.
I like to begin with a careful naming of parts, as this makes the writing of instructions much faster, but I'm aware in this case that to begin by naming all the parts will result in it taking a long time to get the user to what he is going to be doing 90% of the time.

Consequently, I've adjusted my scope so that when describing the layout of the main interface limit myself to putting labels to things, with no explanation, so that I can move on as quickly as possible to the common interfaces, which need some explanation AT THE SAME TIME as labelling.

I had to make several attempts before I was happy with the scope of this first section ("getting started" as it were), but now that the scope is clearly written I can get on with a clear and simple description, without distracting either myself, or the reader, with the question of what things are for or how they work, which I have explicitly excluded from the scope of this section.


Teacher Anxiety

I'm currently experiencing teacher anxiety. I have three training sessions to do this week, and, as usual, I'm worried about things in quite the wrong order (the proper order is given in brackets):

  1. The trainees will know more about the subject matter than I do (5)
  2. The trainees won't turn up (4)
  3. The trainees will complain that they weren't given enough notice/didn't get the email/couldn't read the attachment (1)
  4. I won't get the training support (presentations, handout and demo) complete in time (2)
  5. What I teach them won't be what the product manager wanted (3)
From experience, (3) isn't so much a worry as a dead cert. Oh well. At least I blog human for once. I twisted my ankle last night while wiping my feet and was in agony all night. I'm currently wearing three pairs of socks on the affected foot. It's all rather distracting.

I've been trying to restore to my memory the details of a training that I did ten years ago about preparing for, and delivering training in a commercial environment. Edward Tufte wrote an essay on why powerpoint is the wrong tool (read it on his website - I advise reading ALL the comments, new ones seem to be added every few week since he posted on his website in 2005 ish).

The training I had, years ago, used powerpoint (or something similar) as an example among many of how to display information in front of trainees. It was presented as one possible means of support - especially if there was some important vocabulary to learn, or a diagram would be helpful in illustrating a point.

From this sensible start point, MSPowerPoint has taken over commercial presentations and trainings, to the extent that it is no longer an aid, it has become the principal medium of communication - the presenter is secondary, as he is constantly referring to the slides, and in many cases, reading them out.

I'm trying to get back to basics, and to do this I'm imposing some simple rules, based on the training I had back in the 1990s, to get the message off the screen and back into the air.

  1. All the information that I want the trainees to leave with is in a handout. Most of the information on the handout is not on the slides.
  2. No more than 10 slides PER HOUR (I've had some presentations and trainings over the last four years that, had completed on time, would have needed under three minutes per slide!)
  3. As much "back to basics" training as possible - work with the subject matter; hands-on; exercises.
This approach does put me under a little more pressure - as I need to know the subject matter well; any trainer should be under pressure to know the subject matter better than he knows his slides. Any trainer should be able to complete a training session with no slides at all.


Cause for ConCERN?

The journalist, that unhappy beast, is motivated in his writing by the desire to sell more stories, and hence, the better he writes to this end, the more demand there will be for his stories, and the more he will have to write.

But like any market, there are forces of supply and demand. By providing what the public wants, the journalist increases their appetite; and the more he feeds them, the hungrier they get. There has to come a point where demand catches, and passes supply.

What can the journalist do but use what he writes to provoke new stories into existence? This is extremely common. A jounalist who writes an exposé of political corruption may trigger an official inquiry (new story) that leads to accusations, allegations, resignations (new stories). A journalist who writes about the potential of a new, untried cancer treatment will cause desperate cancer sufferers to try to obtain the treatment before it has been proved to be safe and effective (new story), and they suffer as a result because it is neither safe nor effective (new stories).

Editors don't judge news on some mysterious notion of "newsworthyness" or public spirited "need to know". It is judged on how much more news the news is going to create. They have to because they are enslaved by the demand that they create, and the only way to feed the demand is to manufacture more news.

Reporting the switch-on of the LHC honestly and faithfully would have resulted in no new news:

"The LHC is going to be switched on at CERN. It is the biggest project of any kind ever undertaken by mankind. It is going to start producing experimental data over the next few months, which will take many more months to be analysed, and then scientists will argue for many more months over whether anything has actually been discovered."

This, of course, engenders apathy. Consequently, journalists have given a lot of undue attention to the handful of scientists who went to the trouble to calculate the probability of the LHC creating a world-swallowing black hole or some other equally catastrophic exotic entity. Never mind the fact that the calculations show that the possibility is vanishingly small. Never mind the fact that the very existence of black holes is known only mathematically and through indirect observation, and that if those mathematics are correct then any mini-black holes will emit (Hawking radiation) faster than they can consume matter, causing them to "evaporate". Never mind that the various exotics (singularities and whatnot) are entirely hypothetical.

What matters in reporting this is that the calculations have been made at all. On the fundamental journalistic dogma that "there's no smoke without a smoking gun" (or something), the very fact that anyone is seriously considering the possibility of world-eating black holes being created in France suggests that there is a real risk, however small, that this may occur.

Consequence? People with nothing but money and time to waste between their ears bring court cases to try to prevent CERN from destroying the earth. Which is news, of course, since everyone likes to laugh at the ignorant looneys.

Scientists only make it worse, of course, because their professional discipline prevents them from being dismissive. I've yet to hear any scientist respond to these claims with "don't be silly." That may be an impolite (and unscientific) answer, but it is a responsible one. Giving a carefully worded answer convinces people that you've thought carefully about it and that persuades them that it is a real possibility. Being dismissive may seem cavalier, but it shows that you aren't concerned.

A lot of attention is payed to superconductors, and the fantastic speeds at which the protons whizz round the accerator, and the huge energy levels at which they collide. I suspect scientists are reluctant to point out what the actual energy (as opposed to energy level) of a handful of protons is. It is disappointingly small when compared with the budget, and the people paying for it have faith in place of knowledge.

The best thing about CERN is that it is a sure thing. If it finds nothing, then we're wrong about most of what we think about the Universe. If it finds anything, it will be things that we've never seen before, and some mainstream views will be wrong - it will be possible to choose between possibilities that currently compete on theory, using observation. That is unimaginably cool, and the folks at CERN are heroes for doing what they've done.


Showing off

On the occasion of getting a second letter published in my favourite periodical, here are a couple of links, to both letters.

Personally I find both of them rather obscure; if you don't read the articles that they are responding to, I doubt they make any sense at all. Never mind, here goes:

Hide in plain sight (June 2007)
Strange inheritance (August 2008)



There are many misconceptions about the differences between French corporate culture and Anglo-Saxon corporate culture, not least of which is the idea that there is any such thing as "Anglo-Saxon culture".

The one I want to address seems to be shared on both sides of both the big pond and the little sleave. That is the notion that French written communication is more formal than English.

It is commonly believed that the gulf between the way that the French speak and the way that they write is pretty big. Big enough to merit the word "gulf", at least. I have certainly encountered the peculiarity where certain words and figures of speech are considered normal when spoken aloud, but vulgar, or even offensive, when written down.

The French, in common with most Europeans, the British included, think that the Americans write pretty much the same as they speak. This is probably true in a few cases.

I think the error is in our understanding of the word "formal". Because "formal dress" normally means black tie or some other suitably sober attire, we tend to think that "formal language" is serious, stern, austere. But "formal" only means "having a particular form". By this measure, most soit disant Anglo-Saxon commercial prose is highly formal.

And the formality is no more valuable by being less serious.

While the predominant form in France - where formality occurs - is serious, formulaic and extremely pompous, the predominant form in the USA (and to a lesser extent the UK) is familiar, verbose, catchy and empty of meaning.

Of course, from my point of view, what the customer wants...

But what everybody needs is easy access to information in a way that is well adapted to his expectations and capacity.

So we should not allow ourselves to fall into a particular style when writing. We should choose a style that will suit the reader, then CHOOSE EVERY WORD.


It can get better...

[company] is a world leader in real-time, high fidelity simulation. The Company provides simulation and educational solutions and services to the […] industries. In addition, the Company provides plant monitoring, and signal analysis monitoring and optimization software primarily to the […] industry

This is proper English, insomuch as there are no grammatical or vocabulary errors. However the paragraph is long on words, short on message. It is deeply impersonal, and makes liberal use of weasel words. It is very hard to tell what the company actually does. Since writing the above description, the company in question has dramatically improved it, as follows:

[company] is the World Leader in real-time simulation and training solutions for the […] industries. [company] has delivered over 500 simulation and training applications to 200 customers in 30 countries spanning the globe.

Let's look at the details of their improvements:

"a world leader" >> "the World Leader"

With the indefinite article ("a"), the phrase is functionally worthless. We have no idea how big the market is nor how much competition there is; we know very well, in any case, that any company can claim to be a world leader and we can't reasonably contest it.

With the definite article ("the"), the company is making a bold claim: they lead the world. We may make several confident assumptions:
  • they have the biggest market share
  • they have the most advanced technology
  • they have many imitators

The capitalization of "world leader" is shouting - it's not necessary, and it's somewhat inelegant, but if they are the world leader, then they have something to shout about.

"real-time high fidelity simulation" >> "real-time simulation"

Someone (with a little knowledge of the science of simulation, perhaps) pointed out to them that "high fidelity" is not necessarily the best form of simulation; some simulations work better with more abstraction than with less (more abstraction implies less fine detail - lower fidelity). "high fidelity" had originally been included as puffing-up: it's empty, weasley and possibly even wrong.

Real-time simulation is of course a logical nonsense, however we understand what they mean: 1 simulated hour is equal to 1 real hour. How useful this is in simulation is moot; surely a useful simulation would be one where real hours may be simulated in minutes or seconds? This aside, the phrase is much better without the "high fidelity".

"The Company" >> [company's name]

In an act of dazzling stupidity, in a previous version they used the legalese self reference "the company", thereby missing an opportunity to reinforce the brand. This is thankfully corrected throughout.

"educational solutions and services" >> "training applications"

This one got a cheer from me. Not only is "educational" a wrongful substitution (educational means "pertaining to education" - it isn't an adjective describing "solutions and services", which is how it has been used), it is also a pointless substitution, where the writer may have wanted to avoid the rather pedestrian "training". In addition, we have the double weasel: "solutions and services".

In the new version, boring clarity triumphs over pompous obscurity and "training" is restored to its proper place. Hurrah!. Pity they had to spoil it, replacing the double weasel with the single, "applications", and reintroducing vaguery.

"in addition…[end]" >> "[company] has delivered… [end]"

Instead of more vague product claims, some justification of the opening statement. This is so strong compared with what was there before that we can forgive the rhetorical "spanning the globe" (worldwide would have been simpler and clearer). These stats got a cheer from me too. Flaunting your numbers is a great way to gain credibility. Be prepared to back them up with hard facts, though. A good buyer or auditor will expect this.

The new text could be further improved, but the main spadework has been done, so we'll leave it alone.


And drawer rhymes with door...

I spend most of my creative effort on the written word, but as I write it I hear it in my head.

There is a class of words in English that presents difficulties to foreigners only when spoken; I call them bastard syllables - after the bastard sword, so called because it can be wielded in either one or two hands.

Most of these words are single syllables with a terminal British "r": here and everything that rhymes with here.

What make it special is the way that it is pronounced with two syllables in isolation or when it finishes a sentence, but can be pronounced with one syllable especially when the British "r" is changed into a US "r" when eliding ("hear it"). There's a good deal of variation in the use of the monosyllable form, but it is always obvious (to an anglophone) when it is wrong.

The same distinction is made in US English but you are much less likely to hear the same American use both mono- and di-syllabic forms.

Dora McKinley's song Sunshine contains the lines:

... the truth find your spirit here/for here's where the sun shines ...

The first "here" is a solid two syllables and the second couldn't possibly be more than one.

The bastard syllables aside, there are other words in English that are written as if they should be one syllable but are always pronounced with two:

  • whale, bail, fail, etc
  • smile, mile, etc (rhyme with "trial")
And one or two which are written as two syllables but pronounced as one - "drawer" (of a commode or sideboard). These seem to present the foreigner with less of a problem - especially the Frenchman, whose language is so full of letters that go unpronounced that some of them have become ghosts...


A Tale of Two Tailors

Theatrical costume is one of my sidelines. I'm handy with a needle and thread, and I've a modest collection of vintage sewing-machines. I've had the good fortune, partly in connection with this interest, to be able to discuss the tailoring trade with some of its more and less distinguished professionals.

The tailor produces good work because he cares about integrating two things above all; that his customer should be well dressed, and that his customer should look himself. Walk into a good tailor's shop, and when you walk out again you should look the same, only better. It helps, therefore, when the customer already has a strong sense of his own style; the good tailor works with that, to produce something that enhances the customer's own style.

As a long term relationship develops between tailor and customer, the customer's style will inevitably evolve, along with his experience, his tastes, and his body. The tailor will attempt to guide the customer towards what is, in his opinion, good taste, without infringing the customer's view of his own style and personality. Consequently, the customer's wardrobe changes as a delicate synergy of customer and tailor.

A tailor's definition of 'well dressed' is always "wearing one of our suits". A tailor cares about fashion only as much as his customer does. A tailor cares about creating the right impression only as much as his customer does. The only thing that the tailor cares more about than his customer is the quality of materials and workmanship. The customer need not know about either of these, assuming correctly that they will be taken care of by the tailor.

Nonetheless, there are customers who come in asking for the "latest thing"; asking for something that will "knock-out the ladies" or "blow the lads away" or "make me look like a gent". If the customer smells of money, the tailor won't mind too much, and if the quality of his work is appreciated, the tailor can turn a blind eye to the emptyness of the style.

However, he will always try to guide the customer to something that will suit him. Something that will enhance his natural qualities, rather than try to give him qualities that he does not have.

It isn't easy to write empty commercial twaddle. Badly written empty commercial twaddle is however often indistiguishable from the skillfully written variety due to the sheer emptyness. Our culture has helpfully provided us with the story of the Emperor's New Clothes and somehow we don't apply its lesson where we should.

The company that goes to a PR or marketing consultant generally expects the consultant to research the market and produce copy that reflects the market's expectations. This is fine, but most companies have real differentiators; their products and services have features that make them a better or worse choice, or a better or worse match, to any given potential customer.

All too often the product or company's character is hidden behind market buzzwords - whatever the current fad may be - and potential customers can neither choose between, nor even remember who is who.

Like a good tailor, the commercial writer should understand and communicate what makes the personal style and character of the company he writes for. He should take care to employ quality language with skill and discretion - the latter so that he does not allow his personal tastes to influence his work too much - and produce copy that characterizes the company by accentuating its best qualities and enhancing its personal style.


Canine Viscosity

10 years or so ago, I was working for a company that manages the logistics of property repossessions. I don't want to give anyone ideas, but it is not all that uncommon for the borrower (the owner who is unable to make his repayments) to borrow, or in extreme cases, hire, a big, noisy, aggressive-sounding dog.

Locksmiths and Bailifs (the usual attenders of repossessions) are by their own confession not dog handlers, and will usually call off the repossession until attendance by an RSPCA* officer or private animal handler can be arranged. This can take many weeks. It was not therefore uncommon to receive a message telling us that the repossession could not go ahead for this reason.

On July 26th 1999 I received the following message:

"The previous eviction appointment could not go ahead as there was a viscous dog in the property"

If you google for "viscous dog", you will get over half a million hits. It astonishes me therefore to find that there are no university departments, no private laboratories studying canine viscosity; there isn't even an entry on Wikipedia.

Maybe it's because fluid dynamics has a reputation for having a lot of difficult math. Maybe dogs with high viscosity, being slow moving, are not considered a problem, and therefore not worthy of study.

I think we should be told.

* The RSPCA is often descibed to Americans as "the British equivalent of PETA". This is only true in the sense that both are charities largely funded by private subscriptions. PETA is an animal rights organization; the RSPCA is concerned with animal care and welfare.



Professional writing ought not to be political or philosophical. In an ideal world, the writer should give his customer what he really needs.

This means that when your customer's readers are balanced, professional, educated, honest and liberal, the writer can be brief, clear, simple and direct. However, when your customer's readers are bigoted, ignorant, incompetent, self-serving, pompous, feckless, lazy or stupid, simplicity and clarity are not always the best policy.

I recently read (but I won't tell you where as the author is a friend) a press release telling the local press that the public library had increased its opening hours. My friend was paid to write that this was "enlarging the literacy opportunities of local community stakeholders".

On the one hand, I think every professional writer has a duty to encourage clear, simple familiar language that is easily understood by a maximum of the possible expected readers. On the other hand, we all have to eat, and if your customer is BIG PHARMA or the like, and his corporate chequewriters have an inflated opintion of their own intellect, and the only readers of your copy will be other BIG PHARMA corporate chequewriters, brownnosers and whatnot, there is really no obligation to write clearly, and indeed every motivation to write verbose, pithy, sexy and ultimately meaning-free text. (Nothing protects your customer from litigation better than lengthy, syntactically correct gibberish.)

At the same time, the four of you (I assume that's how many people read this besides me) will have noticed that I can be quite opinionated when it comes to wilful misuse of language. As such, as a responsible writer I propose to draw a line in the sand here:

An copy I produce that might fall into the hands of a member of the general public who might need to understand the message of the text will be clear and have a generally high meaning to word-count ratio.

If flattering your customer's (or his customers') inflated opinion of their own intellect gets your bills paid for goodness sake do it. If what you write might someday be needed by one of the poor saps that your customer (or his customers) ultimately get their money from, make sure the poor sap can get what he needs.


The Biggest Pitfall

Or one of the biggest.

The occasional professional writer, be he writing commercial, technical or quality documents will easily fall into the trap of applying a style that he personally likes, for whatever reason.

The error is of no import if he is a sole trader, and of little import if he is the CEO. In any other situation, the writer's personal style will clash with someone else's personal style, and successive reviews by collaborators will see infinitives split and unsplit, and prepositions moved back and forth between the end and the middle of sentences, caesuras will oscillate between commas, semicolons en-dashes em-dashes stops and brackets, vocabulary will oscillate between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon.

supervisor (latin) translates exactly to overseer (german), however these two fellows don't do exactly the same job...

And there, as our friend WS would say, is the rub.

The professional writer must apply a style that is perhaps derived from his personal style, but which is susceptible to justification and definition - in other words, that he can write it down.

The professional writer needs, for every product he describes, a list of names and references for parts. It is widely accepted that he (or a GD or publisher) will apply a graphic charter. It is surprising, perhaps, then, that very few companys have a Style Guide.

A Style Guide defines the company writing style, with the purpose of being clear, seeming educated and professional - for sure. But most of all, the purpose of a style guide is to be consistent. Endless reviews over a few points of style need not happen if there is a style guide that states, for example:

"When writing for a readership that is predominantly academic, or from a profession where a high level of competence in written communication is typical, the writer shall be careful to avoid constructions that cause them consternation, such as split infinitives, orphaned auxiliaries, overlong sentences, lists, and prepositions at the ends of clauses.

"Whenever the academics are only a small proportion of the readers, such percieved grammatical "errors" are no cause for concern, indeed in some cases going out of your way to avoid them will cause confusion in the majority of readers. For example, in many cases, moving a preposition away from the end of a sentence may make a sentence read unnaturally. It also usually forces the particle "which" into the sentence, which for most readers adds no meaning."

I have recently had a whole series of paragraphs to review where the prepositions were better at the ends of the sentences, because in spoken English they are almost never separated from their verb.

"This is the one into which you must put it."

Is hateful, when compared with:

"This is the one you must put it into."

I didn't intend this to become a discussion of any specific point. The point in question here is that efficiency in technical writing cannot be acheived unless the issue of style is laid utterly to rest. This can only be done through the elaboration of a style guide. There are many templates available, and the Economist Style Guide is probably the best starting point, for its simplicity and brevity.

I commonly use structures and vocabulary in professional writing that in creative writing I would never stoop to. However, in professional writing, I would never stoop to fussing over good or proper style. In professional writing meaning is everything, and style has to be basic, simple, unobtrusive and most of all, CONSISTENT.



As I have just completed a review of a newly drafted SOP, I have just added several new words to the category faux-ami in my lexicon. Not the least of these words is important.

Mocked skillfully by Eric Frank Russell in his 1951 short story And Then There Were None, this is a word whose usage frequently annoys me, since in English it is so poweful when used right, and so empty when used wrong.

Critically, the word has not literal denotation in English. It is a faux ami, because in French it does.

"La contribution la plus importante etait celle de Eric." means, precisely:

"Eric did most of the work."

However, mistranslate this as:

"Eric made the most important contribution." and you could easily understand that Eric's contribution was the most significant or influential, but the statement by no means implies that it was the biggest.

This is, besides being a typical mis-translation of the contrete French word for the figurative English one, an excellent example of a misuse of "important" in English. In the above case, its use disguises the details; consider replacing it with:

"Without Eric's contribution, we could not have finished the job."

We seldom have opportunities to make proper use of "important" in English, however here is an example:

"Eric's backing is the most important." This tells us that when seeking support in our enterprise, our first priority must be to get support from Eric. While it is still a little vague, "important" is actually adding to the meaning of the sentence. Take care, however, not to say:

"It is most important to get Eric's backing." as here you will have disguised the importance of Eric's support by confounding it with the act of getting the support. As a general rule, follow EF Russell's example and don't use the damn word at all:

"If we get Eric's backing, everyone else will soon follow."


Do Assume

As the popular phrase has it:

"Assume makes an ass of u and me"

Or does it?

Well I suppose it does, provided that either (a) you don't know the meaning of the word "assume" or (b) you haven't been taught how to assume.

An assumption is not a guess. It is a reasoned or justified statement of some fact that you think is true, AND WHICH you expect to be confirmed or denied before you proceed. The saying ought really to be:

"Acting on what you assume prior to receiving confirmation, makes an ass of u and me."

There are three distinct levels of certainty that seem very seldom to be properly used, and even less often properly understood when they are used correctly:

assume indicates a proposal or question that needs to be confirmed , OR is an explanation for other choices made.

presume indicates that I have some concrete reason for believing something to be fact

expect indicates that I am sure that something will happen


"Arriving at a signpost with a picture of a bus on it, I assumed it was a bus stop and began to wait."

I may be right or wrong.

"I presumed the bus that I saw arriving would stop at the bus stop."

If my first assumption is right, then it is reasonable of me to think that the bus that I saw would stop. Of course, if my assumption was wrong...

"I expected to be allowed on the bus."

By this time the bus has stopped, it's going where I want to go, there's room aboard, and I have money to buy a ticket. I have every reason to think that I will be allowed on.

While expectation is not certainty, it is an honest substitute for it in situations that are too complex for certainty.

"I'm certain that if I drop this rock, it will fall to the ground."


Distant Precedent

Arguments over style, grammar or punctuation may well make appeals to precedent. This is a good thing if the precedent is recent, since in such cases, it shows current, or at least recent, use.

When the precedent takes the form: this was first used in 1640 (or almost any other date 100 or more years ago), I describe it as distant precedent.

Distant precedent often sounds very authoritative, and many people accept it as settling an argument. This is bizarre. Grammar and (especially) syntax and punctuation can vary enormously over time; it is entirely possible for a form to go in and out of acceptable use over a period of centuries. What matters, therefore, is what is acceptable use ''today''. (see [[less vs fewer]]).

Distant precendent becomes valid only when ''continuous use'' can be shown from the distant precedent to the present. This is a strong justification, but still doesn't trump the [[ultimate rule]].


Thee Grate Reveler

In Gibbon's indignant account of the destruction of the Pagan temples by the Christians under the reign of Emperor Theodosius, he repeatedly uses the phrase "levelled with the ground" - so frequently indeed that it seems to have already been a cliché when Gibbon was writing.

Today, the phrase has become "levelled to the ground". This is possibly because of the existence of the verb "to level", and the frequent late middle ages description of Death as the great leveller. (I'm told this description was often seen on common depictions such as in Almanachs and even on MA13 of the Tarot de Marseille.) The original cliché seems to have been confounded with "burned to the ground", resulting in the grammatical nonsense of the modern idiom.

The abstract correctness of Gibbon's version makes it rather more acceptable, modern idiom notwithstanding. "levelled to" deforms either the dative pronoun by giving it a genative meaning of (relative to), or deforms the verb, transforming "making level or flat" into "destroy".

I'm going to see if I can slip "levelled with" into the conversation at some point and see if it passes unremarked.


Naming of Parts

Poem by war poet Henry Reed

An essential first step when learing how to use a tool, and therefore the very first step when describing a tool. Seldom is enough care taken by designers and manufacturers in the naming of parts. If they took a little more care, the job of the technical writer would be so much easier.

The Get Rule

The Get Rule is a PlainWords* rule. The principle is to use the verb to get wherever possible. The purpose is to minimise the amount of vocabulary that the reader needs, and the only criterion is that the context is sufficient that the meaning conveyed by 'get' is sufficient to cover the meaning conveyed by the (possibly more precise) word that get is replacing.


Getting data

is better than

Retrieving data

since retriving is an obscure latinism, and has no more meaning than 'finding and bringing back' or 'fetching' both of which are in the (rather special) meaning-space** of get. In this specific example, loading data might be better than either, because it is domain-specific***.

Get is a very special animal indeed; it is a metasyntactic variable verb - essentially a placeholder sound whose meaning is conveyed by the surrounding context. What makes it special is that its possible meaning is restricted to notions of transfer. It is the direct equivalent of the latin verb ferre (fero ferre tuli latum) from which we get both transfer and translate.

* "The Complete Plain Words", by Sir Ernest Gowers, is one of my main inspirations
** the linguistic equivalent of phase-space, meaning-space is described as the set of all possible meanings of a given word, excluding identically spelt homonyms
*** referring to the domain of a technical term.


Changing the Interface

I use a four-part description of how to use a Jack Plane as a basis for comparison when working out how to explain how to use software tools. When I write a user manual, I need to be sure that if the software publisher redesigns the interface that it will have only the most minimal effect on the descriptions of any functionalities.

Supposing that the manufacturer of the jack pane decides to make a version where the rear handle ('tote') is shaped like a saw handle (poignée à jour) instead of the classic swan-neck? I'll update the section that describes the parts, and possibly the assembly. I'd expect to have to add a short explanation of why the manufacturer has chosen to deviate from a well-established pattern.

I would not expect to have to change any explanation of how to use the plane.

What are words?

Before literacy was generalized words were sounds. In our post-literate age words have acquired meanings from the way we try to capture store and retrieve them. They have a meta-meaning that is carried by the symbols we use to record them. Put plainly: spelling has meaning.

Before written language the only meaning of a word was in its sound.

Through has the same number of syllables, and the same number of sounds as ski. But what one acheives in three letters, the other uses seven.

(In Italian, both would have three letters.)

This is a problem for anyone who needs to use written communication. English and French are my main languages, and both are rife with words that have meta-meanings.

Show has meta-tags that imply basicness, simplicity, classroom.

Demonstrate has meta tags that imply practicality, complexity, detail, product.

Yet the the words are not synonymous. There is a nuance. To show something is to draw attention to its existance. To demonstrate something is to "show" how it works.

Compare: "Let me show you my cow."

With: "Let me demonstrate my cow."

Even so demonstrate is often selected when show is notrong; largely I suspect from a desire to avoid underselling.

I won't go into the origins of spelling and meta-meanings here; that isn't my purpose.

The two complications combine to make my job difficult. Because I write for international readers in English I sometimes find myself opting to show and tell even when demonstrate and imform would be more accurate. I often choose the words with the simplest spellings and simplest or least ambiguous meta-meanings. Frequently I choose the shortest words, since their meaning is least likely to be confused with words or groups of words in the reader's native language.

The result is plain but irregular. And rather stilted and impoverished for someone who relishes the meticulous precision with which Jonathan Meades employs his vast and varied vocabulary, and Virgil's eight page similes (sillymes) .

Nonetheless I'm going to add some posts about how to wrangle rope and brand in Plain English.