About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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I would have to say that most instructions I come across are unimportant and some are harmful. Most instructions I get about software development process, I would say, would be harmful if I believed them and followed them. Most software process instructions I encounter are fairy tales, both in the sense of being made up and in the sense of being cartoonish. Some things that look like instructions, such as "do not try this at home" or "take out the safety card and follow along," are not properly instructions at all, they are really just ritual phrases uttered to dispel the evil spirits of legal liability.

James Bach



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/21/2017

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Posts - 2441
Comments - 2554
Hits - 1,968,048

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Entries/day - 0.47
Comments/entry - 1.05
Hits/day - 383

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 9:21 PM Pacific


  03:02 PM

As most people discover, there's a class of writing error that spell check just can't help you with. Consider these examples:
  • We recommend that the company shit its resources for better output.
  • The event is open to the pubic.
Run these through spell check, and all is well. Only, of course, it's not.

As I recently learned, Word has a feature that can help find errors like this: an exclusion list. An exclusion list has words that are spelled perfectly fine, but that should be excluded from your documents.

The steps for creating an exclusion list are described in a great blog post by Sam Hartburn. The basic idea is that you add words, one per line, to .lex files in a specific folder on your computer. Here's the Windows location--see notes later for Mac instructions:


You can use any text editor to edit the file, including Notepad.

Note that there are different .lex files for different languages, and in fact for different flavors of each language—e.g. English US and English GB. (It's not inconceivable that there's a way to set up a global .lex file, but I don't know. Leave a comment if you know about that.)

Once you've got your exclusion list(s) updated, close and then reopen Word. Then when you run the spell checker, Word will flag words that are part of your exclusion list:


The examples I've shown here pertain to, you know, taboo vocabulary. Another excellent use for this feature is to flag words that you often mistype but are technically spelled correctly, such as manger for manager or potion for portion. Or you can use it for terms that should be avoided in your particular work, even if they're perfectly cromulent words in English. Really, you can use the exclusion list feature to have Word bring to your attention any word that you might want to double-check as part of your proofing.[1]

I do have a couple of notes for you about using exclusion lists:
  • Words in the list are case sensitive. (As indeed they are in the Word spelling dictionaries.) For example, it's probably a good idea to include both assed and Assed.

  • It's up to you to include all variant forms of a term, including plurals and verb conjugations: ass, Ass, asses, Asses, assed, Assed, assing, Assing, etc.

  • With regard to having different .lex files for different language variants, it will up to you to know what languages are in use in a given document. If a document has been through many hands, it's possible that different sections or paragraphs or even words might be flagged as having different language settings.
I learned about all this from a Twitter thread and specifically from the editor Ashley Bischoff. Not only did she introduce a bunch of us to exclusion lists by pointing to the blog post, she took the initiative to create a Google Docs spreadsheet for collecting words for potential inclusion. The doc is open to anyone. Please contribute!

PS Ashley has a second sheet in the workbook with instructions for both Windows and Mac users on how to update your exclusion lists.


[1] Microsoft alums will recognize this as similar to the Policheck tool, about which I've written before.

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  04:14 PM

On Facebook today, one of the editors I know, Amy J. Schneider, posted about a habit that some writers have, namely adding a kind of reflexive "successfully" to their sentences. Here's an example, which I'm sure we've all seen variations of:

You haven't just logged off. You successfully logged off. (Thankfully, you didn't unsuccessfully log off.)

I see this all the time, and it bugs me pretty much every time. Just for yucks, I did a search for "successfully" in the documentation set I’m currently working on. I found 1473 instances; here are just a few:
  • Snapshot created successfully.
  • Successfully logged into database.
  • After you have successfully created the file, …
  • Click the Check button to verity that the service can successfully connect to your job.
  • To confirm that the volume was successfully taken offline, …
  • After the device is successfully updated, it restarts.
  • Make sure the test has successfully passed before you proceed.
… and on and on and on.

I ask you: is the word successfully really necessary in any of these instances? I posit that it is not. Moreover, and since I apparently am dispositionally incapable of not doing this, I ask myself "Wait, is there an unsuccessful way for this to happen?"

I reckon I could do a global search-and-destroyreplace on "successfully" in our documentation set without worrying that I would be changing the meaning of anything. (I'm not actually going to do this, just to be clear.) In fact, I'd be shaving nearly 20,000 characters out of the docs. Which is to say—of course—that I'd be shaving those characters successfully.

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  12:23 PM

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has an essay on NPR today in which he tells of his rediscovery of the joys of using exclamation points. As he notes …
Yet writers and editors only pride themselves on expunging the marks, never on sticking them in. When it comes to exclamation points, the only virtue we recognize is self-restraint
This is true. In my work (software documentation), we maintain a tone that is, while not entirely academic, pretty neutral. Just the facts. And facts rarely require exclamation marks.

A story I've told many times: Years (decades) ago when I was learning the craft, I drafted something in which I'd included an exclamation point. My then-manager circled it and added this note: "Nix. Too exciting." I've added very few exclamation marks since then.

Technical docs have been on a path toward more friendliness, it's true. And these days especially, docs might initially be created by people who do not spend their days in the tech-writing trenches. The result is that some of these drafts can have a distinctly marketing feel to them, which of course includes exclamation points. Which I always take out.

And more than one exclamation point? Good lord. From the editor Andy Hollandbeck I learned the word bangorrhea, which is the use of excessive!!! exclamation points. The developer Rory Blyth once summed up this editorial attitude: "The use of more than one exclamation point side-by-side, in any context (except comics), is a sign of mental insanity, a marketing degree from the University of Phoenix Online, or both."

Still. Nunberg points out that exclamation points have discursive purpose in informal writing, "chiefly to signal friendliness." If I examine my emailing habits, I have to admit that I do use them like that. To me there's a pretty obvious difference between signing off an email with

Thanks,

versus

Thanks!

… for example.

And I've also noticed that I use an exclamation-mark-based way to indicate a kind of written eyebrow-raised-in-surprise. Like this:

They said they'd be here at 8:00 am (!)

Apparently over 50 people (!) have accepted the invitation

I'm not sure where I picked up this tic or how widespread it is. But I'm not sure how'd I'd replace it if for some reason I could no longer use it.

Nunberg concludes that he's going all-in on exclamation points again. It's a good thing, I guess, to get a kind of permission to unleash a little positive emotion in one's writing. But it will take me a long time, I think, before I'll be comfortable with documentation that describes how to use the many! great! features of our products.

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  08:23 AM

At the end of March I gave a presentation at the ACES conference on "Tips and Tricks for Using Microsoft Word Styles." For years I've taught a class about Word styles at Bellevue College. My experience is that even people who use Word don't necessarily know all the ins and outs of using styles, so when the call for papers for the conference came out, I submitted a proposal. It was accepted, and I was given a 60-minute slot.

I spent a lot of time preparing for the session, agonizing about what material to include. Much of my indecision was because I simply didn't know who my audience would be. Would there be people new to styles? Were all of my tips already old hat to an audience of experienced editors? Plus I only had an hour, which I know from experience seems like a lot of time, but is nothing. (My course at BC runs 6 hours.)

I ended up presenting a quick overview, and then a lightning tour of how to apply, create, and manage styles. Along the way I threw in tips that I reckoned could be useful to even people who had worked with styles: keyboard shortcuts; tips for naming styles; style inheritance; styling TOCs; taming multi-level list styles; and more. There were about 60 people in the room.


Presenting about styles. (Photo: Lindsay Lelivelt)

I got the evaluations back recently. There was enough positive feedback to suggest that yes, it was a useful session and that people got good information from it. Big relief! A number of commenters indicated that they liked "technical" sessions, which I hope means I'll have another shot at a session like this.

What was particularly useful, though, was feedback from people who had suggestions or complaints. There were several classes of feedback that I think I've learned different lessons from.

Not the right level. Some felt it was too advanced; a few others felt it wasn’t advanced enough. (This was, of course, precisely my fear.) The solution here, I think , was suggested by more than one person: the session description should have indicated a lot more clearly what level I was aiming at. I got to write my own session description, so this was well within my control.

The session was fast and there was a lot of (too much) information. Boy, this one is a dilemma. There's only an hour, so how do you make it less rushed? One solution, obviously, is to spend more time but try to get through less information. I guess this is possible if I also do the previous, which is to set expectations correctly about what we'll cover.

No hands on. The conference organizers had told me that people like hands-on sessions, and I can see why. But I know also that when people are following along, the pace is just slower, and I knew we would already be pressed for time. I think a solution here might be to request a longer session time (some 90-minute slots are available), or to think about creating an online course.

No Mac information. Someone noted in a slightly annoyed comment that I was unable to answer questions about Word styles on the Mac. Boy, I really dropped the ball on this one. Although I don't use a Mac myself, I know that many people do, and I should have been able to explain which of my tips did and didn't apply to Macs. I won't give this session again without fixing this issue.

All in all, it was a gratifying experience. As with most teaching, the need to present information cohesively forced me to organize and articulate stuff I had floating around in my head, plus I was obliged to research some corners of Word that I knew about but was fuzzy on. Armed with my list of ways to improve the session, I'll pitch it again for the next ACES in conference.

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  07:38 PM

I was editing something at work today and ran across the phrase lightening fast, with bonus e. This got my attention—I've seen this spelling plenty, but it was an unusual context. So I got to thinking about this spelling and why using lightening for lightning isn't all that unreasonable.

First, it's not uncommon. Using the phrase bolt of lightening as a way to search for the term, I found 10 instances in the COCA corpus versus 206 instances of bolt of lightning. Let's call that a 4–5% hit rate. Thunder and lightning gets 156 hits; thunder and lightening gets 5, which is a somewhat lower incidence of around 3%. But it ain't zero. Point is, people do use the lightening spelling; not a lot, but it's out there in printed materials.

Second, it's not an error that spell checkers can find. Lightening is a perfectly cromulent word in its meaning of "to make or get lighter," as in lightening one's load. It's possible that a grammar checker will find the error; for example, if you write "bolt of lightening," Microsoft Word's grammar checker flags it. But in most contexts, grammar checking is not available.

Finally, it can make sense from a phonological perspective. Unless one's pronunciation is particularly precise, it's not hard to hear or make a vowel between the t and n in lightening. This is a phenomenon known as epenthesis, which is common in many dialects (mason-a-ry, ath-e-lete). And lest those of us with perfect pronunciation should feel too smug, epenthesis is the historical source of some now-standard pronunciations (famously, thunder in English got itself an epethentic d—compare Donner in German).

As with many misspellings, people don't like it. But it's an understandable one, at least. And all that said, I did fix it in the document I was editing. :-)

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  09:17 PM

I was reading an article today about Zika, the viral disease that's causing microcephaly in Latin America. Tragic. But I was taken by a language aspect to the article. At one point, the author writes:
Less pesticide means [...] more mosquito-born diseases.
This spelling appears twice in the article, so it seems to be deliberate. There are a couple of possibilities here, I think.

One possibility is that the writer intends borne, but doesn't know how to spell it. This isn't surprising; they're homophones, after all, and born is anywhere from 20 to 50 times more common than borne, depending on which corpus you examine.

Another possibility is that the writer doesn't realize that he really means borne, i.e., the past tense of bear (mosquito-borne disaease == mosquitos bear [carry] the disease). In that case, mosquito-born is an eggcorn: an error, but one that sort of makes sense, since the disease might be "born of" mosquitos.

In edited text it doesn't show up very much. For example, the COCA database lists only one instance of mosquito-born versus 92 instances of mosquito-borne. But a Google search produces page after page of examples, so the writer here would definitely have seen other examples in print.

All in all, it's a pretty interesting error.

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  01:56 PM

I hesitate to call "typo!" here, but I did find something odd in the February 1, 2016 issue of The New Yorker (page 45):


In case you can't read it, this is the text, with the oddball term highlighted:

Sarah Palin, the pre-Trump embodiment of populist no-nothingism in the Republican party [...]

I would have expected here the name know-nothingism, which I would have understood as a reference to the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, which had a strongly nativist bent, and which I assume the author of the NYer article, Ryan Lizza, intended to invoke.

I'm wary of this conclusion, tho, because the NYer is about as rigorously edited a publication as there is in the U.S. today, and it would be surprising, to say the least, to find a typo like this.

What am I missing here?

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  09:04 AM

I was reading a thread on a computer forum, and someone asked this question:
Quote:
Your password should contain at least 6 characters

If you're going to require it; don't say "should", say "must".
This set off an interesting discussion on the semantics of should in this context. I've written about this before, so I was interested to hear how people interpreted the example.

Here is a sampling of the more serious posts on the thread:

From the requirements document: "The password entered by the user should be rejected if it does not contain at least six characters." If I received that requirement from my boss, I would make darn sure that the password is rejected. I don't think I would randomly reject some and not others.


The software is being polite; it's anticipating users who do not like being told what to do.


If it says "should" then it is not optional, like in "could". You should be "this tall" to ride this ride.

A number of people pulled out dictionary definitions (Wikitionary, heh). And one person cited RFC 2119 ("Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels"), which states:

MUST This word, or the terms "REQUIRED" or "SHALL", mean that the definition is an absolute requirement of the specification.

SHOULD This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.

All of which goes to the original poster's point—the message was ambiguous and should (ha) have been written with must. For those of us who don't keep a mental catalog of RFC recommendations, the more accessible Microsoft style guide says:

Use should only to describe a user action that is recommended, but optional. Use must only to describe a user action that is required.

In documentation, in error messages, in any context where the message needs to be clear and you aren't there to help the reader understand, avoid should when you mean must.

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  09:54 PM

From my daughter, another example of poor design patched by documentation.


Who imagined that a) having an unlabeled numeric scale was a good idea, and b) you move the knob to the right for "colder"?

Let's at least fix the first problem, shall we? Like this:


We can't use documentation to fix the problem of having to dial "more cold." But at least we don't to print a frickin' manual right on the freezer.

Update 4 Aug 2015 In response to Hal's comment, here's an improved design that even has redundancy for those who aren't sensitive to color differences.

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  10:18 AM

I am all for writing that conveys factual information and that’s written in an informal style. But some rigor is still required, even then, to keep thoughts and facts on track.

Here’s an example, one complete paragraph, from the book Countdown by Alan Weisman, which (as here) sometimes reads like a novel.
It exasperates him to think of agriculture’s driving incentive being not to feed, but to profit. Reynolds rises and stalks to the window. Both these men have made their careers here, working alongside Dr. Borlaug, authoring papers with him. A Nobel Peace laureate, and yet money to continue his work on the veritable staff of life that launched human civilization, and on which it still depends, is so damned scarce.
So, two moments of potential confusion. First, who does “A Nobel Peace laureate” refer to here? Choices seem to include:
  • Reynolds
  • Dr. Borlaug
  • Someone who does not otherwise appear in this paragraph.
Second, what exactly is the relationship between the Nobel Prize and, well, anything in the rest of the sentence that the term appears in?

As I say, informal style is ok with me for a book like this. But if a sentence gets to the point where the reader has to stop and think, even informal writing needs some tightening up.

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