STE: quirks and limitations at ASTC (NSW) 2014

I’m attending the annual conference of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (NSW), ASTC (NSW) 2014. These are my session notes from the conference. All credit goes to the presenter, and any mistakes are mine. I’m sharing these notes on my blog, as they may be useful to other technical communicators. Also, I’d like to let others know of the skills and knowledge so generously shared by the presenter.

Lyneve Rappell spoke about the quirks and limitations of STE (Simplified Technical English).

What is STE (Simplified Technical English)?

It’s a limited and standardised subset of English, used in technical manuals in an attempt to improve the clarity of and comprehensibility of technical writing. See the Wikipedia article. It’s aim is to help the users of the English language understand technical documentation, particularly in international programs which include people whose first language is not English.

The set of rules that you use to write Simplified Technical English is defined in the manual: ASD-STE100. The rules are not static. They are changing, but the aim is to produce a stable base.

One of the aims is to avoid the need for translations, although it also helps with doing translations. (The latter was not the original goal.)

What’s wrong with everyday English?

Lyneve ran through the aspects of English that make it difficult for people to understand in technical manuals. For example, different areas of the world use different variations of English. We use different language on different media. There are complex grammar structures, plentiful synonyms, and more.

Core skills and competencies

Most clients of TechWriter Placement and Services (where Lyneve works) ask for:

  • Strong collaboration skills, including communication, time management, positivity and adaptability.
  • The ability to write strong plain language.
  • Knowledge of tools, especially Microsoft Word.

What do need to know to be able to write in Plain English and in Simplified Technical English? Lyneve compared the principles and rules of the two.

The STE rules are based on a good knowledge of grammar. For example, you need to know what verbs, nouns, participles and adjectives are, and be able to identify the grammatical subject and object of a sentence. For example, “Convert nominalised actions into verbs”. Many Australians don’t know the language of grammar, although they know how to read and write very well. Whereas people coming from non-English-speaking countries have the opposite problem: they know the grammar very well, but can’t necessarily read and understand English.

Thus, using the STE specification requires a high standard of professionalism on the writer’s part. Organisations can choose to train existing staff, install automated an checking system that checks the language (as used by Boeing, for example), and perhaps employ contractors. STE is not in much demand in Australia.


Thanks Lyneve for an authoritative and interesting introduction to STE. I loved the contextual information Lyneve included in this session.


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 17 October 2014, in ASTC and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks Sarah! Much appreciated.

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