Tags: english

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Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Principles and the English language

I work with words. Sometimes they’re my words. Sometimes they’re words that my colleagues have written:

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

I also work with web technologies, usually front-of-the-front-end stuff. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The technologies that users experience directly in web browsers.

I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.

When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.

Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Be conservative in what words you send.

Then there’s the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

That could be rephrased as:

Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.

Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:

Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.

Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

Content buddy

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

Sometimes a colleague will send a link to a Google Doc where they’ve written an article. I can then go through it and suggest changes. Using the “suggest” mode rather than the “edit” mode in Google Docs means that they can accept or reject each suggestion later.

But what works better—and is far more fun—is if we arrange to have a video call while we both have the Google Doc open in our browsers. That way, instead of just getting the suggestions, we can talk through the reasoning behind each one. It feels more like teaching them to fish instead of giving them a grammatically correct fish.

Some of the suggestions are very minor; punctuation, capitalisation, stuff like that. Where it gets really interesting is trying to figure out and explain why some sentence constructions feel better than others.

A fairly straightforward example is long sentences. Not all long sentences are bad, but the longer a sentence gets, the more it runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. So if there’s an opportunity to split one long sentence into two shorter sentences, I’ll usually recommend that.

Here’s an example from Chris’s post, Delivering training remotely – the same yet different. The original sentence read:

I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions on product design and research techniques with the design team at Duck Duck Go.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But maybe this is a little easier to digest:

I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques.

Perhaps this is kind of like the single responsibility principle in programming. Whereas the initial version was one sentence that conveyed two pieces of information (who the training was with and what the training covered), the final version has a separate sentence for each piece of information.

I wouldn’t take that idea too far though. Otherwise you’d end up with something quite stilted and robotic.

Speaking of sounding robotic, I’ve noticed that people sometimes avoid using contractions when they’re writing online: “there is” instead of “there’s” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” Avoiding contractions seems to be more professional, but actually it makes the writing a bit too formal. There’s a danger of sounding like a legal contract. Or a Vulcan.

Sometimes a long sentence can’t be broken down into shorter sentences. In that case, I watch out for how much cognitive load the sentence is doling out to the reader.

Here’s an example from Maite’s post, How to engage the right people when recruiting in house for research. One sentence initially read:

The relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide have a great impact on the quality of the insights that you get.

The verb comes quite late there. As a reader, until I get to “have a great impact”, I have to keep track of everything up to that point. Here’s a rephrased version:

The quality of the insights that you get depends on the relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide.

Okay, there are two changes there. First of all, the verb is now “depends on” instead of “have a great impact on.” I think that’s a bit clearer. Secondly, the verb comes sooner. Now I only have to keep track of the words up until “depends on”. After that, I can flush my memory buffer.

Here’s another changed sentence from the same article. The initial sentence read:

You will have to communicate at different times and for different reasons with your research participants.

I suggested changing that to:

You will have to communicate with your research participants at different times and for different reasons.

To be honest, I find it hard to explain why that second version flows better. I think it’s related to the idea of reducing dependencies. The subject “your research participants” is dependent on the verb “to communicate with.” So it makes more sense to keep them together instead of putting a subclause between them. The subclause can go afterwards instead: “at different times and for different reasons.”

Here’s one final example from Katie’s post, Service Designers don’t design services, we all do. One sentence initially read:

Understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments is key to creating a compelling user experience.

That sentence could be broken into shorter sentences, but it might lose some impact. Still, it can be rephrased so the reader doesn’t have to do as much work. As it stands, until the reader gets to “is key to creating”, they have to keep track of everything before that. It’s like the feeling of copying and pasting. If you copy something to the clipboard, you want to paste it as soon as possible. The longer you have to hold onto it, the more uncomfortable it feels.

So here’s the reworked version:

The key to creating a compelling user experience is understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments.

As a reader, I can digest and discard each of these pieces in turn:

  1. The key to creating a compelling user experience is…
  2. understanding the relationships between these moments…
  3. digital and non-digital…
  4. and…
  5. designing across and between these moments.

Maybe I should’ve suggested “between these digital and non-digital moments” instead of “between these moments, digital and non-digital”. But then I worry that I’m intruding on the author’s style too much. With the finished sentence, it still feels like a rousing rallying cry in Katie’s voice, but slightly adjusted to flow a little easier.

I must say, I really, really enjoy being a content buddy. I know the word “editor” would be the usual descriptor, but I like how unintimidating “content buddy” sounds.

I am almost certainly a terrible content buddy to myself. Just as I ignore my own advice about preparing conference talks, I’m sure I go against my own editorial advice every time I blurt out a blog post here. But there’s one piece I’ve given to others that I try to stick to: write like you speak.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

Selectors Explained

I can see this coming in very handy at Codebar—pop any CSS selector in here and get a plain English explanation of what it’s doing.

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

GitSheet

A handy translation of git commands into English.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

“It turns out” « the jsomers.net blog

It turns out that “it turns out” is a handy linguistic shortcut for making an unsubstaniated assertion.

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Malaphors | Unintentional blended idioms and phrases – It’s the cream of the cake!

Some of these really tickle my fancy bone.

That’s the icing on the iceberg

You let the horse out of the cart

What planet are you living under?

That opens a whole other kettle of fish

The cat’s out of the barn

Patience comes to those who wait

That’s right up my cup of tea

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

English as she is spoke

This is truly a book apart.

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Anti-Net-Neutrality “Fast Lanes” Are Bullshit – Marco.org

An astute takedown of the political language in a New York Times article.

George Lakoff would be proud.

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Avoiding ‘words to avoid’ | Inside GOV.UK

I love the thinking behind this plugin that highlights the weasel words that politicians are so found of.

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

furbo.org · The Origin of Tweet

A fascinating bit of linguistic spelunking from Craig Hockenberry, in which he tracks down the earliest usage of “tweet” as a verb relating to Twitter.

Basically, it’s all Blaine’s fault.

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

A Timeline made with Timeglider, web-based timeline software

Improve your word power: here’s a timeline of terms used to describe male genitalia throughout history. And yes, there is a female equivalent.

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Not click. Not tap. Select. : Cennydd Bowles

Cennydd uses the word “select” as an input-neutral term for what we might be tempted to call clicks or taps. Personally, I like the term “choose”, although that word might have too much intent bundled with it.

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Friday, January 18th, 2013

To Be Today

A beautiful project from Brendan and the Royal Shakespeare Company: the headlines of today preceded by quotes from The Bard.

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Editing tips for designers : Cennydd Bowles

Good writing advice from Cennydd.

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

shitty portmanteaux

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse than “webinar.”

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

“When It’s Not Your Turn”: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s “The Wire” « The Hooded Utilitarian

What if the Wire were a serialised Dickensian story? …which, let’s face it, it kinda is.

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

My Father’s Final Gift « Aza on Design

The beautifully-written and moving story of a father’s last gift to his son. The father is Jef Raskin; the son is Aza Raskin.

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

The Universal magazine - Google Books

A proto-wikipedia from January 1749.

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Fillerati - Faux Latin is a Dead Language

The best alternative to lorem ipsum yet.