Monday, February 26, 2007

In Defense of a Populist Grammar--
My blog today will not be popular with most of my audience (ironically, given its title). I invite all who disagree to post their responses in Chaucerian English.

And that introduces my point, when is a language supposed to stop adapting itself? Twice last week I came across conversations involving transitive and intransitive verbs, specifically vilifying those (like me) who have started to use some transitive verbs as intransitive.

Quick refresher: Transitive verbs take direct objects, as in "Joe hit the ball." Intransitive verbs do not take direct objects, as in "The light shines." Some can do either, as in "Mary played the piano" and "Billy played all day." So my first point is how seriously should I take a rule when the mother tongue herself seems a bit ambivalent about it?

The issue is around transitive verbs that get used in intransitive ways, for example, "The error message displays in the status bar," or "Do not close the connection until the document prints."

This is an interesting usage and one I think has some positive aspects. It is also closely aligned with the disdain many hold for the passive voice. The trend I see is that certain transitive verbs are becoming intransitive when the logical subject (had it stayed transitive) would have been the computer. In short, we do not care about the ghost in the machine. I know the computer prints the document, but I don't care or I don't want to talk about the computer. So I make the verb "print" intransitive to mean "gets printed." Agency (whodunit) is lost, but we know (or don't care) what printed it. Same thing with error messages that display.

A positive aspect is that this construction makes it easier to treat the object of interest as the topic (subject) of the sentence. This construction is similar to passive voice (which I think writers and editors unfairly eschew). I had an editor today change my sentence from "the user's focus is distracted away from the text by the radio buttons," to "The radio buttons distract the user's focus away from the text." No big deal, but I wanted the sentence to be about user focus, and now it is about the radio buttons.

There seems to be a humanistic need to ignore the computer as doer (controller?), and this move to intransitize verbs seems to be an adaptation to that need. I think "The error message displays in the status bar" is a better sentence than the "The system displays the error message in the status bar." For one, it keeps the sentence about the error message, and secondly, we know the computer does it so no information is lost. And for purists who love active voice, it does it without resorting to the passive form, "The error message is displayed..."

Just one little problem. Display is a transitive verb (well, it does have an intransitive use that deals with birds and animals behaving in ways that tip off others what species they are). One solution is to recognize that there is a trend to downplay the computer as agent and shift agency to objects by treating heretofore transitive verbs as intransitive. A useful device. But to whom do we write in order to make that change official?

Well, I would look to the bard for that answer:
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.
Clear enough for you?

Conclusion: Let the language adapt to our changing needs and perspectives. The grammar books and dictionaries are history books after all--how the language was spoken. As long as meaning and clarity are not lost, what harm is done? Only English teachers get confused by the sentence "The error message displays in the status bar," sitting in front of the documentation asking, "Displays what? " Everybody else gets it and looks in the status bar to see if the system is displaying an error message.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

In Memoriam--
I normally refrain from using this blog for personal ramblings, but this morning's news announced what is a deep and personal loss for me--the A and J Tasty Pig in Snelleville burned down last night.

Although I have lived within a mile of the A and J Tasty Pig for 25 years, I ate there only once--sausage was OK.

But I have always been in awe of the restaurant's name, its complete openess to what it was you would be eating if you went there. Pig.

"Pass the pig," is not a phrase you hear at a lot of dinner tables. In fact, about the only time you hear "pig" associated with the food is at a pig roast, and anyone who's been to one of those knows the futility of being coy about the animal of honor. It's there and in your face.

We're not so squeamish about chicken. We name lots of restaurants after it and use the same word whether speaking of the bird or the food. Same with fish. It would not be unusual to come across a restaurant named "Captain Billy's Fish Fry" or "Holy Mackerel" (especially in Florida where I think there is state law or at least strong guidelines from the Chamber of Commerce that restaurants must be given dumb names). We are so open about the association between creature and food in the case of fish that when eating one of the most ubiquitous of the species, the tuna, we add on the word fish just for good measure. As in "Give me the tuna FISH salad, yeah you got me right, I'm eating a fish! You hear that over there in the corner booth, I'm eating FISH!"

So why the taboo against admitting that we are eating a cow? I've never seen an A and J Tasty Cow. The only restaurant that uses cows in its ads is Chick-Fil-A, a chicken joint. They are mainly trying to remind us what we will be served if we go to MacDonalds or Burger King.

I pity the English as a Second Language teacher who has to cover this. Meanwhile, I'm real sorry that the A&J Tasty Pig burned down, even though I don't go there.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's Aliiiiive!!--
I've recently become sensitive to an apparent fault in my writing: I'm guilty of anthropomorphism, i.e., the representation of objects as if they had human traits. I was reading someone's essay about a professor who had influenced him and the writer noted, "He taught me to think and write critically, and always nailed me for writing anthropomorphically, such as 'The data showed... when it should be written as 'Inspection of the data revealed...'".

I thought about that this morning as I wrote, "This section discusses..." Would the reader have been better served by "In this section I discuss..." or "This section presents a discussion of..."?

In short, what is wrong with anthropomorphism? We say that a machine is running. Does that send a throng of people down the hall to see this miracle of a machine that has sprouted legs and is moving speedily on them? In the same vein, what is wrong with data showing trends or a section of a document discussing a topic?

And if you disagree, I would not be in the least confused by your saying, "Your blog screamed of incompetence." (My little feelings would be hurt, but I would not be confused.)

Anthropomorphism is a little like passive voice in so far as it can obscure agency. But, also like passive voice, it is unfairly maligned. Where agency is unimportant (The data showed...) or obvious (This section discusses...), anthropomorphism allows the content or the document to be the topic. For example, when saying "This section discusses..." I prefer to be talking about the document structure rather than talking about me.

My keyboard grows weary of this topic and my monitor longs to be displaying landscapes and vistas of my screen saver. I must do their bidding :-)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Users! They've been around for centuries apparently---

The book

Friday, February 16, 2007

Has Web 2.0 made affordances like so yesterday?--
Granted, the fact that I am 57 years old might be a contributing factor here, but I am seeing what I consider to be a disturbing trend in web design.

Editable fields look like read-only until the user mouses over them. In technical terms, the trend is to reduce the number of affordances (using visual clues to communicate that objects can be acted on) and to rely instead on applying pliancy effects (changing the appearance of objects when focus is applied) to show when actions can be taken on them.

For example, if I open a meeting notice on my Google calendar, I see what appears to be a group of read-only fields, such as "What," "When," "Where," and so forth. But if I move my mouse over any of those fields, they change appearance and background color to indicate that I can edit them.

Here is my concern: If I did not know that the "What" field (for example) could be edited, why would I move my mouse there? It seems that taking away the affordance of showing the field as editable has reduced the ability of the box to show the user how it can be used.

Is this a user assistance issue at all? I say yes because the application has lost some of its effectiveness to instruct the user what information can be edited. Is the solution to cover that in Help? (must....control....hand....of....death)

If you see this happening on your applications, fight it and point out the loss of instructional content within the UI.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Progressive User Adoption (redux)--
I'm in an all-week training session learning how to do contextual design. Very neat stuff, by the way. We've done some contextual interviews and did some initial interpretation and the outstanding common observation is that the users we observed were using just a small portion of our product's functionality. As I have noted before, users typically plateau out at a sub-optimal level, and user assistance can provide tremendous value in systematically moving the user through progressively higher levels of product adpoption (see my Currents presentation).

What struck me in this current study we are doing it the negative impact the user's premature plateau was having. I talk in my article about unused features being the long tail, but what I saw this week is that our competitive advantage is in those long tail features--and they are not being used. It is so frustrating to hear users say, "I really hate that your product can't do..." and then they name a feature that our product has.

As I have said, I think there is a great opportunity for user assistance to add value by being part of a conscious, progressive user adoption strategy. Come to the Atlanta STC Currents conference on March 10 and hear more about this topic. (Yes, that was a shameless plug!)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Rules Are Changing--

Want to get excited again about being a technical communicator? Watch this:

The title is "Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us," and it is an extraordinary piece by Michael Wesch, a social anthropologist from Kansas State University.

And there is this piece: Think of it as Tufte online. (BTW, Tufte is also from Kansas, hmmmm.)

It reminds me that we have a whole new level of interacting with users, and we should be applying those new possibilities to user assistance.

But every force has its dark side. You hated Clippy? Look what Microsoft is doing now!

Successful user assistance is like a three-legged stool: Respect the content, respect the technology, respect the user. Ms. Dewey misses the last leg.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Progressive User Adoption--
For those who were patient and let me ramble on last month about progressive user adoption, you might want to look at the more coherent discussion I will be presenting at Currents (STC Atlanta's conference) in March. I've preposted the paper to my web site . The newest twist is that I relate it to a long tail distribution marketing strategy, so you might find it is a new way to promote the value of technical communication as a revenue enhancer.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Shut Up and Talk--
A colleague sent a clip from an academic website that lists its latest banned words. It reminded me what I don't like about us (technical writers): We forget sometimes that language is about talking to each other, not setting up obstacles to the same. Some entries and my rebuttals:

NOW PLAYING IN THEATERS -- Heard in movie advertisements. Where can we see that, again?"How often do movies premiere in laundromats or other places besides theaters? I know that when I want to see a movie I think about going to a shoe store." -- Andrea May, Shreveport, Louisiana. (Mike: How about cable and network TV? Andrea apparently hasn't seen a movie since 1931)

ARMED ROBBERY/DRUG DEAL GONE BAD -- From the news reports. What degree of "bad" don't we understand? Larry Lillehammer of Bonney Lake, Washington, asks, "After it stopped going well and good?" (Mike: Generally refers to the part where people started getting killed. It's called gone bad because it was not part of the original plan. Notice, Larry, it never says "murder gone bad.")

ASK YOUR DOCTOR -- The chewable vitamin morphine of marketing."Ask your doctor if 'fill in the blank' is right for you! Heck, just take one and see if it makes you 'fill in the blank' or get deathly ill." -- R.C. Amundson, Oakville, Washington. (Mike: R.C., it means it's a prescription drug. Last time I checked, just taking one on your own was illegal.)

i-ANYTHING -- 'e-Anything' made the list in 2000. Geoff Steinhart of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, says tech companies everywhere have picked this apple to the core. "Turn on…tune in…and drop out.""Banish any word that starts with it. i am just tired of it. it's getting old. -- Brad Butler, Adrian, Michigan. (Mike: diot!)

HEALTHY FOOD -- Point of view is everything.Someone told Joy Wiltzius of Fort Collins, Colorado, that the tuna steak she had for lunch "sounded healthy." Her reply: "If my lunch were healthy, it would still be swimming somewhere. Grilled and nestled in salad greens, it's 'healthful.'" (Mike: Want to guess that was the last time Joy got asked to lunch?)

Hey, folks, relax. People are communicating here. I'll end with my pet peeve: folks whose pet peeve is using nouns as verbs, ala to google someone or task someone to do something. It's a normal construction in our language. We iron our clothes, bicycle around the park, book criminals, table discussions, etc.

Here is a useful rule of thumb: If you understood what someone said well enough to know right away you disagree with how they said it, they must have said it pretty good. ;-)