Is the generic "you" implied in error messages?

Subject: Is the generic "you" implied in error messages?
From: Geoff Hart <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 10 Feb 2000 15:06:00 -0500

David Castro rewrote <<this error: "This item cannot be deleted." to say:
"You cannot delete this item." so that we have consistently active

The general philosophy of going to active voice and identifying the actor is
good, but it fails the "what do I do now?" test. Simply reporting an error,
no matter how clearly you do it, rarely addresses the reader's needs. (Lest
you accuse me of being too pious here, I hasten to add that I've only rarely
been able to intimidate my pet programmers into adding these instructions to
their error messages or providing the information required for me to write
the message--and I've got a pretty good relationship with them. Educating
programmers is an ongoing struggle.)

<<he pointed out that users might take my rewrite to mean "*you* can't
delete the item, but someone else might, so if you want to delete it, ask
around and see if someone else can."... Do you think that the generic you is
implied in error messages?>>

I agree with the programmer on this one; when I see a message written in the
indicative, I assume that you are talking to me unless the message clearly
states otherwise (e.g., "You can't delete it, but Dave can... neener neener
neener!"). Ideally, the error message should read something like "To delete
this item, you must first close it. Open the File menu and select Close,
then try again" or whatever the correct solution is. If you can't persuade
the programmer to standardize on such helpful error messages (and it sounds
like you've at least established the dialog necessary to try this), active
voice is the lesser of two evils: it at least communicates the message "go
ask someone who knows what to do because you sure don't". Passive voice
leaves users baffled and wondering whether the problem lies in them, whether
someone else could solve the problem for them, or whether nobody nowhere
nohow could solve the problem.

--Geoff Hart, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"The paperless office will arrive when the paperless toilet
arrives."--Matthew Stevens

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