Re: Terms Not to Use in Error Messages

Subject: Re: Terms Not to Use in Error Messages
From: "Robert Plamondon" <robert -at- plamondon -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 15:59:31 -0700

>I am looking for a comprehensive list of terms that should not be used in
>error messages. If any of you have stumbled on such a list on the
>Internet, I request you to share the resource location.

Who is the audience?

>For example, it is recommended not use the word 'illegal', the term
>'invalid' must be used instead.

It all depend on the audience. In some contexts, the difference between
"illegal" and "invalid" is important. Dividing by zero is illegal. Dividing
by bozo is invalid.

Where the audience consists of computer professionals, the error messages
should be precise, specific, detailed, pull no punches, and use no weasel
words. It doesn't matter whether the messages sound kind of scary so long
as they are clear to the intended audience.

If the audience consists of end-users, developer-style error messages are
unlikely to do them much good, and you might as well limit the fear factor.
Apple did this (albeit badly) with the Macintosh when they put up the
picture of a bomb when the system crashed, plus a brief error code that
could be jotted down if you felt like it. Much more plausible than the idea
that someone might write down all the gibberish on the Blue Screen of Death,
especially after they've seen it five hundred times.

I wish they had used different bomb icons, ranging from a firecracker to a
mushroom cloud, to give an idea of just how badly the system had crashed
this time -- just as I have often wished that, instead of showing an
hourglass, Windows showed pages flying off a calendar -- but I suppose we
can't have everything.

But I digress. With error messages seen by end-users, one thing to keep in
mind is to make it clear whether the error requires action on the user's
part. Presumably, the user can't do much about crummy hardware,
applications, and operating systems (short of embracing competing products),
but he CAN be required to type in something other than "bunny rabbit" as his
ZIP code.

If the problem is with the user's input, the error message should guide him
clearly toward a correct action. If the problem is some kind of internal
problem, the error message should make it clear that it's not the user's

-- Robert

Robert Plamondon
President, High-Tech Technical Writing
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com
(541) 453-5841
"We're Looking for a Few Good Clients"


sourcing tool for FrameMaker that lets you easily publish your content
online. No macro language required!

Mercer University's online MS Program in Technical Communication Management:
Preparing leaders of tomorrow's technical communication organizations today.
See or write George Hayhoe at hayhoe_g -at- mercer -dot- edu -dot-

You are currently subscribed to techwr-l as:
archive -at- raycomm -dot- com
To unsubscribe send a blank email to leave-techwr-l-obscured -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Send administrative questions to ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com -dot- Visit for more resources and info.

Previous by Author: Re: Do you tell them?
Next by Author: Re: Bug Tracking Application
Previous by Thread: Re: Terms not to use in Error Messages
Next by Thread: RE: Terms not to use in Error Messages

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads