Monday, August 04, 2008

Guess who's talking

A little side trip again away from reuse. I was visiting with my sibs in Florida and was picking up a bar tab (since I am typically the major contributor to the total). The waitress delivered me two credit card tickets, one labeled "Mine" and the other labeled "Yours."

So which one do I keep and which one do I give back to her?

Had she handed them to me and said "This one is mine and this one is yours," I would have given her the one about which she had said "This one is mine." But because it was in writing, I was inclined to keep the one that said "Mine." I guess because as I read it, the voice in my head was my voice and I identified "Mine" with me. But the "Yours" didn't work in that scenario since I wasn't talking to anyone other than myself. I think I kept "Yours" and gave her "Mine" not feeling any too comfortable that I had gotten it right.

But boy, what a lot of thinking just to figure out which to give back of two documents that would have been the same except for the label that tried to differentiate them.

Why not "Customer" and "Merchant"? like most do? That is not ambiguous.

Or even "Give us one and keep the other."

Or don't label either. Then if I asked which one she wanted she could say, "The one with the big tip on it."


Ted said...

In "Orality and Literacy," Walter Ong describes the transition, over hundreds of years, from the reader as "you" (think of all the "Dear reader" stuff in writers like Dickens) to the reader as "me." Fascinating stuff; might be good as required reading in tech writing programs.

Mike Hughes said...

Thanks for leading me to Ong. I think I'll make "Orality and Literacy" my summer book. There might be a good argument that an oral style would be preferable to a literary one in Help (because of its memorability).

You can definitely see a trend to "reader as speaker" (where the reader mentally says the written words from his own perspective as speaker) with the ubiquity of MyWhatever web sites. We also see it in some headings and links. Yet writers still speak to readers in 2nd person within the text itself. For example, a form might have a link that says "Why do you need my SSN?" but the help topic that would come up would not be in the first person. I guess that is because there is an assumed dialog going on (pretty much the pattern used in most FAQs). I wonder if we would ever write primary content in a "reader as speaker" mode as in text that might say "I can't help but wonder why..." as opposed to "You are probably wondering why..." Certainly, our use of imperative mood in instructions could be a transition to that style since the subject is implied and (You) click OK could easily evolve into (I) click OK.

Mike Hughes said...

P.S. At the risk of sounding like, if you liked Orality and Literacy you might also like Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, a comparison of how culture has changed as we evolved from a hunter/gatherer society to an agrarian one. Stick with it, once you get over the fact that the main character is a talking gorilla, it's a captivating read.

Ted said...

Ordered it. Thanks for the tip.