RE: You or he/it?

Subject: RE: You or he/it?
From: "John Rosberg" <jrosberg -at- interwoven -dot- com>
To: "Geoff Hart" <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>, "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 22 Jun 2006 08:51:02 -0500

Formal writing works much better for folks for whom English is not their
first or primary language -- while it may sounds stilted and unnatural
to US readers, pronoun strings can quickly confuse non-US readers.

This is true, of course, for US English speakers reading documentation
that has been translated into English -- text that might read as
friendly and informative in Japanese or German can become, on a good
day, comical in English. On a bad day, unusable.

With a little re-writing, of course, pronouns can be avoided altogether
in most Tech Docs.

The root-cause analysis suggested below is a great way to start the
conversation with the Product Manager. Almost always a good step to

John Rosberg
-----Original Message-----
From: Geoff Hart [mailto:ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca]
Sent: Wednesday, June 21, 2006 8:48 AM
Subject: You or he/it?

Anonymous wondered: <<I'm in the midst of a (major) disagreement at my
place of employment. Since beginning my career as a Technical Writer,
I've had it pounded into me that we are to use the "you", eliminate
"it/he/she", keep it informal and to the point, and use present tense
WHENEVER possible. Make it simple and easy to follow.>>

You should be able to find any number of textbooks on technical
writing, and any number of user manuals from Adobe, Microsoft, etc. to
support your case.

<<We now have a new Japanese Project Leader who wishes me to create a
completely new, FORMAL format, eliminating you, sprinkling it/he
liberally, and generally, creating a document that (in my opinion only)
would be very difficult to read through, especially for our Target
Audience. (Administrative IT personnel)...>>

In user documentation, the most important criterion with respect to
pronouns is that the actor must always be clear. "You" is rarely
necessary in documentation if you use the imperative voice ("do x"
instead of "you should do x" or "you're so screwed now that you've done
X" <g>), so the project leader may actually have a good case to make
here if you're overusing "you". Similarly, there's nothing wrong with
"it" if you're using this correctly as a pronoun with a clear

"He" is generally accepted as a bad choice unless you're specifically
referring to male subjects; the overwhelming modern trend in the West
is towards gender-neutral writing, and given that your Japanese project
leader may be new to this discourse community, it's worthwhile helping
them to understand that by adopting a gender-specific style, they would
be annoying many readers and embarrassing themself. Fear of public
embarrassment is a powerful motivating force in all cultures, but
particularly so in Chinese culture--and I'd guess Japanese culture too,
but don't quote me on that.

Project leaders are often very sympathetic to the "if it ain't broke,
don't fix it" approach. Without being confrontational*, ask the project
leader what problem they are trying to solve, ask them to produce
evidence (not opinion or personal preference) that this really is a
problem, and ask them to provide high-quality examples of the style
they're asking you to try. Sometimes you can adopt some of their style
choices (not all) and thereby reach a compromise in which both of you
"win": they see that you've given in to some of their demands, and are
more likely to accept some of your demands in return.

* "I'd like to work with you to find an approach that works for both of
us, but most importantly for the reader. Let's define the design
criteria here. We have the following situations we need to cover in the
writing [e.g., defining the actor]. What do you dislike about the
current approach? How would you fix it? How about the following
solution instead?"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - --
Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


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You or he/it?: From: Geoff Hart

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