Journal tags: clarity

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Letters of exclusion

I think my co-workers are getting annoyed with me. Any time they use an acronym or initialism—either in a video call or Slack—I ask them what it stands for. I’m sure they think I’m being contrarian.

The truth is that most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the letters stand for. And I’ve got to that age where I don’t feel any inhibition about asking “stupid” questions.

But it’s also true that I really, really dislike acronyms, initialisms, and other kinds of jargon. They’re manifestations of gatekeeping. They demarcate in-groups from outsiders.

Of course if you’re in a conversation with an in-group that has the same background and context as you, then sure, you can use acronyms and initialisms with the confidence that there’s a shared understanding. But how often can you be that sure? The more likely situation—and this scales exponentially with group size—is that people have differing levels of inside knowledge and experience.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to get into the field of web performance. Not only are there complex browser behaviours to understand, there’s also a veritable alphabet soup of initialisms to memorise. Here’s a really good post on web performance by Harry, but notice how the initialisms multiply like tribbles as the post progresses until we’re talking about using CWV metrics like LCP, FID, and CLS—alongside TTFB and SI—to look at PLPs, PDPs, and SRPs. And fair play to Harry; he expands each initialism the first time he introduces it.

But are we really saving any time by saying FID instead of first input delay? I suspect that the only reason why the word “cumulative” precedes “layout shift” is just to make it into the three-letter initialism CLS.

Still, I get why initialisms run rampant in technical discussions. You can be sure that most discussions of particle physics would be incomprehensible to outsiders, not necessarily because of the concepts, but because of the terminology.

Again, if you’re certain that you’re speaking to peers, that’s fine. But if you’re trying to communicate even a little more widely, then initialisms and abbreviations are obstacles to overcome. And once you’re in the habit of using the short forms, it gets harder and harder to apply context-shifting in your language. So the safest habit to form is to generally avoid using acronyms and initialisms.

Unnecessary initialisms are exclusionary.

Think about on-boarding someone new to your organisation. They’ve already got a lot to wrap their heads around without making them figure out what a TAM is. That’s a real example from Clearleft. We have a regular Thursday afternoon meeting. I call it the Thursday afternoon meeting. Other people …don’t.

I’m trying—as gently as possible—to ensure we’re not being exclusionary in our language. My co-workers indulge me, even it’s just to shut me up.

But here’s the thing. I remember many years back when a job ad went out on the Clearleft website that included the phrase “culture fit”. I winced and explained why I thought that was a really bad phrase to use—one that is used as code for “more people like us”. At the time my concerns were met with eye-rolls and chuckles. Now, as knowledge about diversity and inclusion has become more widespread, everyone understands that using a phrase like “culture fit” can be exclusionary.

But when I ask people to expand their acronyms and initialisms today, I get the same kind of chuckles. My aversion to abbreviations is an eccentric foible to be tolerated.

But this isn’t about me.

Words

I like words. I like the way they can be tethered together to produce a satisfying sentence.

Jessica likes words even more than I do (that’s why her website is called “wordridden”). She studied linguistics and she’s a translator by trade—German into English. Have a read of her post about translating Victor Klemperer to get an inkling of how much thought and care she puts into it.

Given the depth of enquiry required for a good translation, I was particularly pleased to read this remark by John Le Carré:

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

That’s from an article called Why we should learn German, but it’s really about why we should strive for clarity in our use of language:

Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.

It reminds me of one of my favourite Orwell essays, Politics and the English Language:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

But however much I agree with Le Carré’s reprise of Orwell’s call for clarity, I was brought up short by this:

Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.

Le Carré’s text was part of a speech given in Berlin, where everyone would get the reference to the infamous Nazi quote—Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning—and I’m sure it was meant with a sly wink. But words matter.

Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons.

Why do pull quotes exist on the web?

There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph. Or it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s spoiling a sentence that you are about to read in subsequent paragraphs.

There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph.

To be honest, I find pull quotes pretty annoying in printed magazines too, but I can at least see the justification for them there: if you’re flipping through a magazine, they act as eye-catching inducements to stop and read (in much the same way that good photography does or illustration does). But once you’re actually reading an article, they’re incredibly frustrating.

You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice.

You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice. Blotting them out is easier said than done on a small-screen device. At least on a large screen, pull quotes can be shunted off to the side, but on handheld devices, pull quotes really make no sense at all.

Are pull quotes online an example of a skeuomorph? “An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material.”

I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions. The default assumption is that pull quotes on the web are fine, because everyone else is doing pull quotes on the web. But has anybody ever stopped to ask why? It was this same spiral of unexamined assumptions that led to the web drowning in a sea of splash pages in the early 2000s.

I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions.

I’m genuinely curious to hear the design justification for pull quotes on the web (particularly on mobile), because as a reader, I can give plenty of reasons for their removal.