Re: Dumbing Down (Was: Using Contractions in Software Manuals)

Subject: Re: Dumbing Down (Was: Using Contractions in Software Manuals)
From: Johndan Johnson-Eilola <johndan -at- PURDUE -dot- EDU>
Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 07:29:56 -0500

Wouldn't the appropriate approach here be to do some usability
testing or focus group work with the actual *users* of the manuals to
find out if they have a preference or different levels of usability
with contractions versus full words? There's something humorous about
tech writers and managers thinking that they're bringing culture to
the masses by forcing them to read what sounds to us like more
"formal" (and therefore somehow better) prose. There's nothing
inherently "low" about contractions--this is a culturally constructed
(and pretty outdated) view of language in technical documents. (The
same logic could be used to enforce passive voice across technical

I think all of us need to recognize that we have very particular
ideas about language use growing out of our invididual and collective
experience--and they *don't* always match up with our users.

- Johndan

At 2:13 PM -0400 5/11/99, Shelley wrote:

Scott wrote (in reply to Shelley):

Shelley wrote:

> I have a rather difficult time with contractions for publication. To me,
> is dumbing down - bringing language to the lowest common denominator.
> By lowering our standards to include contractions in manuals and the like,
> we are not only permitting but promoting the "dumbing of America".

Ummm, I thought that was part of our job: writing to the lowest common
denominator OF THE AUDIENCE.

Isn't that part of knowing your audience and writing to them?

I can write a manual about C++ programming libraries and speak on a much
higher technical level to that audience (programmers) than I could if I
were writing a manual about how to play Windows Solitaire. Sure, some
programmers would be playing solitaire, but also some people who don't do
much of anything else with their computers. I would have to evaluate the
average users in that audience and write to the lowest common denominator,
or "dumb it down".

I'm not speaking for or against contractions, I'm just saying that
bringing language down to a level our audience can understand is what we
are supposed to be doing.>>

Yes, it is a part of knowing your audience and writing to them. But does
that mean we should write *down* to them?

The content can be scaled back, the phrasing can be simpler, etc. for those
who are not quite as "knowledgeable". But, in my opinion, the *language*
itself shouldn't be brought down just because "they will understand it

By not making people reach *up*, and talking to them at or below a level
they are 10000% with (such as using contractions like can't instead of
cannot), you are participating in that.

The content isn't changed, nor is the meaning of what you are saying. It is
just *how* you are saying it, which makes a difference.


- Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Director of Professional Writing
Department of English voice: 765.494.3772
Purdue University <mailto:johndan -at- purdue -dot- edu>
West Lafayette, IN 47907-1356 <>

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