AODC day 1: The Power of Controlled Language

This week I’m at AODC 2010: The Australasian Online Documentation and Content conference. We’re in Darwin, in the “top end” of Australia. This post is my summary of one of the sessions at the conference. The post is derived from my notes taken during the presentation. All the credit goes to Dave Gash, the presenter. The mistakes and omissions are all my own.

Dave Gash gave a information-rich and focused topic titled “The Power of Controlled Language”. It was about controlled languages and specifically STE (Simplified Technical English). He covered the following aspects of a controlled language:

  • What it is.
  • Why you may want to use it.
  • Some examples.
  • The software tools you can use.

A true story

Dave started with a true story. As an experienced traveller, he likes to make sure that he doesn’t get overcharged for things. One of the things he does when he checks in to a hotel is to ask the front desk to turn off the porno channel. “That way I can’t get to it and they can’t accidentally bill me for it. As if I’d watch porno on the hotel TV anyway. That’s what the wireless broadband is for.”

A while ago, when Dave was checking in to a hotel, he asked:
“Is the porno channel in my room disabled?”
The laconic answer was, “No mate, it’s just regular porn.”

This story is relevant to Dave’s topic. What a controlled language aims for is “one word, one meaning”. In conversational English, we use the word “disabled” in two ways. This can result in miscommunication, as illustrated in Dave’s story.

AODC day 1: The Power of Controlled Language

AODC day 1: The Power of Controlled Language

What is controlled language?

A controlled language is a highly-structured, limited language that is intended to make technical documentation easier to read and understand. It’s always a natural language, not a contrived or artificially-constructed language.

The characteristics of a controlled language:

  • Simplified grammar and style.
  • Limited set of words and meanings.
  • Thesaurus of unapproved terms and their alternatives.
  • Strict guidelines for adding new terms, e.g. terms needed for your industry or company.

The basis for most controlled languages today is STE (Simplified Technical English). The official specification is ASD-STE100.

Why should we care about controlled languages?

English is a rich, subtle language. This means that it’s also complicated.

Complexity confuses the readers and makes the writers’ work harder. Complexity makes translation more difficult, more expensive and more prone to mistaken translations. Complexity also opens up the possibility of legal confusion and liability.

Normalised vocabularies benefit everyone.

As another illustration of ambiguity and the problems it can cause, Dave told a story about an operator of a snowplow operator who had been told to “clear the runway”. So he did. And caused a plane to have to abort a landing because there was a snowplow on the runway!

Disadvantages of controlled language

There are disadvantages too. A big one is the resistance to change, from management and writers. It’s time consuming to adapt to controlled language. You have to train your writers and editors. You need to spend money on new software. Writers feel that they’re losing creativity and aesthetics.

Dave emphasised that technical documentation is not the place for creativity and aesthetics.

A comment from me: Hah, quite a different view from mine in my presentation tomorrow!🙂

All about STE

Next, Dave took an in-depth look at STE specifically. He touched on the advantages of using an existing controlled language and looked at some of the specific rules of STE. He gave some interesting examples of words (such as “follow” and “test”) that we commonly use in technical documentation but that are not accepted in STE, in the way we usually use them. It was interesting to see the reasons why each word is not right, according to STE.

Adopting STE

Dave walked us through the steps we would need to take, to adopt STE. You need to buy the STE standard. Note that you can get a free personal copy from Boeing.

You also need to get some software tools, develop a corporate dictionary and train your writers and editors.

Building the corporate dictionary sounds like a long and fairly complex task. It also sounds very interesting, something a linguistics nut like me would love to do. The STE standard gives guidelines. Still, I’d say it’s a big undertaking.

Dave gave us some links to information about training and about good software tools. The tools offer text mining, rule checking and word checking. Some of the tools are plugins for common authoring tools, some are standalone tools. Dave showed us screenshots of some of them:

  • Textanz Concordance — analyses your text and shows you how often you use specific words, etc.
  • Concordance 3.2
  • Acrolinx IQ — a broad spectrum product that you can plug into XMetal and various other tools. It does grammar, spelling and style checking and checks your text against version controlled language standards.
  • Tedopres HyperSTE — a fairly popular and comprehensive product that helps you to standardise your vocabular and style. It also takes your extensions into account.
  • MAXit Checker — uses colour-coding and on-hover popups to give you information.
  • SMART Text Miner — extracts terminology from the document, keeps the context and builds a dictionary for you. You can then use that dictionary to help plug new terms into STE.
  • Boeing Simplified English Checker — a well-established tool, since Boeing is well invested in simplified English. One thing that stands out is that it detects errors in subject-verb agreement.

My conclusion

This was an interesting and informative talk from Dave. I’ve never used a controlled language in my writing. I’d be very interested in helping to set one up, because it gets you into linguistics and language use. I’m not so sure I’d like to use a controlled language. On the other hand, I do see the advantages. As Dave said, those are instantly visible.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 12 May 2010, in AODC, technical writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. @ffeathers: “You need to buy the STE standard. Note that you can get a free personal copy from Boeing.”

    Can you supply details of how to get a free personal copy of the STE standard from Boeing?

  2. Hallo Mike

    Dave Gash kindly gave us the link in his slides. You can request a free personal (not for commercial use) copy from Boeing Research & Technology by going to this site:
    http://active.boeing.com/phantom/sechecker/index.cfm

    Cheers, Sarah

  3. For people with further interest in HyperSTE you should visit the website of Tedopres. They organize free webinars about STE and other related subjects from time to time. Note that they are also the company that do the technical translations for Boeing.

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