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

Subject: Re: Dumbing Down (Was: Using Contractions in Software Manuals)
From: Brent Jones <bjones -at- CITR -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 10:07:06 -0500

Shelley wrote:


> 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
> better".
> 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.

My job isn't to force people to have a bigger vocabulary or to be able
to read more sophisticated material. I don't want my readers to have to
strain for that "10000%" when using my docs, just so I won't risk
"dumbing them down." My job is to enable them to use the software as
efficiently and quickly as possible, and I'll write using baby talk if
that's the best way to reach my audience. Or using complex grammar with
arcane vocabulary, if that's most effective. It depends on what will
enable my identified audience to most easily use the software

*That's* my job, as well as my responsibility.

I don't use contractions in technical documents because I think it lends
an inappropriate tone to the material, weakening the authorial voice and
perhaps undermining the readers' "faith" in the material. In my
experience it's very rare to come accross contractions in technical
docs, and even rarer to find a style guide, textbook, or authority that
recommends their use in that context. However, if I became convinced it
would make a real difference to my audience's comprehension of a doc,
I'd use them.

"The dumbing down of America" is, in my opinion, one of those alarmist,
too-broad phrases that reflects the interpretation (manipulation) of
statistics much more than it does an objective reality. If it's my
responsibility to fight this heinous trend via the way I write technical
documents, what else should I be battling for (or against) in my docs?
World peace? The US involvement in NATO? You see my point: Those things
have nothing to do with technical docs. Neither does making my readers
"smarter," unless you're just talking about their comprehension of the


Brent Jones, Sr. Technical Writer
CiTR, Inc. Boulder, CO
"In the Kingdom of Boredom, I wear
the Royal Sweatpants." M. Leyner

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