Monday, 17 December 2007

Wikipedia in Academia?

Someone recently asked me what I thought, as a university lecturer, of students who quote from Wikipedia in their academic work. Surely I wouldn't allow it, they suggested, as Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at anytime, and is therefore bound to be inaccurate.

I surprised my questioner by saying that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Wikipedia as a source. I also suggested that something that is subject to review by a very wide audience, and that can be edited quickly by many different hands, is probably more likely to be accurate than inaccurate. The problem with using Wikipedia in an academic assignment lies elsewhere.

The accepted practice on the course I teach, and I imagine that this is pretty much a standard practice, is that all sources must be properly referenced, and for online sources that means giving the access date as well as the URL. If a student were to cite a relevant Wikipedia entry, properly referenced, as part of their research, that would be fine by me. But it has to be dealt with in the same way as any other reference, which means that it has to be relevant to the argument, critically assessed, and properly referenced. And it definitely can't be the only reference that a student cites for a particular point.

In fact, a Wikipedia article is probably no better and no worse than an article form any other encyclopedia. The fact is that encyclopedia articles are rarely much more than a general introduction to a topic. As a tutor I expect students to research relevant books and articles from peer-reviewed journals, rather than quote from encyclopedia entries. We supply bibliographies, and university library services are there to support students in their research.

Some students find it difficult to adjust to the fact that academic work requires some effort on their part. It is not "instant". Tutors expect to see evidence of research, and analysis, and above all, of independent thought. Being able to share the latest "viral" video with twenty-sevn thousand "friends" in 0.176 seconds is not enough. So by all means read Wikipedia, and quote from it if you must. But don't expect me to accept it as true, or as relevant to your assignment's argument, just because it's something you found online.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Prepare to wince

In his recent article "Whose English?" in the Financial Times, Michael Skapinker describes the growing popularity of English in the non-English speaking world. For example, one South Korean politician is promising that if elected he will greatly increase the availability of English language teaching in the country so that families are not "separated for English learning". That anecdote gives an insight into just how much importance people in developing countries give to learning English. They will risk family break-up in order to travel abroad to study English. There's a video on YouTube of a "crazy" mass English lesson in China that's possibly evidence of the same attitude.

Based on the assertions of scholars like David Crystal that 1.5 billion people can speak English at some level, Skapinker notes that "non-native speakers now outnumber native English-speakers by three to one". That could mean that the spoken English of the future may not be the English spoken in Britain or United States. It may have a more international flavour. That kind of English may well make native-speakers wince, as Skapinker suggests, and may give people like Lynne Truss apoplexy, but I think it may well happen and we'll just have to get used to it.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Limited time offer: Free Documentation Audit

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This offer is completely free for businesses in the Greater London area. For businesses outside Greater London I need to make a small charge to cover travel costs. The Audit session and written report remain free.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Here's something from an unsolicited commercial email I received today which is so patently untrue, I had to share it:

My name is Dave and I work for xxxxxxx Limited. I've just taken a look at your website and I think your customers would find our Van insurance product really interesting.

On what planet exactly does an interest in technical communications and information design equate to a need for van insurance? You, sir, have never looked at my web site in your life!

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Another recruitment practice that drives me mad

Sometimes I work directly with clients as a freelancer, and at other times I work as a contractor (perhaps sub-contractor is a better term) for other companies or agencies. This means my CV is widely distributed and I get calls and emails from all sorts of companies, some of whom clearly have no idea what technical communicators do. I also accept that sometimes a recruiter will make a mistake and think that a particular word in my CV such as "J2EE development", which I have used to describe a company or environment, is actually part of my personal skill set. Mistakes happen. Keyword searching is an example of where computers can make more mistakes more frequently. This is a disadvantage of computerised keyword searches, and most reputable recruiters recognise this. They would use a computerised search only as a first filter, and would then ask their staff to check CVs individually and only contact candidates who really did have the right experience.

Alas, not all agencies do this. Instead of being ashamed of their bad practice in relying purely on computerised search, some agencies appear to be proud of how little effort they put in to researching candidates, and are happy to tell us poor candidates so. Here's an extract from something I received yesterday that really does drive me mad:

Please note that there will be certain percentage of people who receive this mail shot that will not be suitable. This is due to the search being computerised as we have over 580,000 candidates registered and it is physically impossible to do a manual match. Even though we do use complex search strings there are always going to be errors from the system as it is a free text search that picks up buzz words. I hope this goes some way to explaining why you may receive ill matched mail shots from time to time.

And the poor grammar and sentence construction doesn't help either.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

What Word 2007 is really for

I would imagine that most users of Word 2007 haven't paid much attention to what the "tooltip" message says when you hover your mouse pointer over the program icon. I have been using Word 2007 for several months and I only recently noticed this myself. Here's what it says:

"Microsoft Office Word 2007
Create and edit professional-looking documents such as letters, papers, reports, and booklets by using Microsoft Office Word"

What's that again? "Professional-looking" documents? Not professional documents then. OK.

That does make sense actually, because I'd like to think that most people realised that the difference between professional-looking documents and professional documents was the contribution made by documentation professionals.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

What (some) recruiters really think of tech writers

I often get calls from recruiters working for general IT employment agencies who seem to have very little idea about what a technical writer can or cannot do. When they talk about the job requirements they are obviously reading from a script with words they don't understand (like "RoboHelp" or "FrameMaker") and have little chance of understanding my answers. To be fair to them, the job descriptions they are reading are often written by HR persons at client companies who are equally clueless about technical writing and technical writers.

Earlier this week I had a call from one such recruiter who sounded young and enthusiastic. Here's the exchange between us:

Recruiter: "I found your CV on [well-known recruitment website]. I'm looking for a technical writer for a client. They're a software development company."
Me: "That's great, I have done a lot of work with software development companies."
Recruiter: "What's your level of experience with C++?"
Me:"I've written technical and user documentation for all sorts of applications written in all sorts of languages."
Recruiter: "Yes, but what's your level of experience with C++?"
Me: "I'm not a software developer, I don't write applications, I write about applications."
Recruiter: "Well this company are very specific about wanting someone with experience of C++. For example, someone who used to be a programmer. Someone who tried programming and found they weren't successful, so became a technical writer instead. You'll find that most people doing technical writing used to be programmers."

So now you have it: to be a technical writer you first need to be a failed programmer. According to that recruiter, at least.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

FrameMaker 8 and InDesign CS3

Like many professional technical writers, I have long been an enthusiastic user of Adobe FrameMaker for creating long text-rich publications such as software user guides and the like, so I was pleased when Adobe released a new version FrameMaker 8 a couple of months ago.

However, it's not the only professional document publishing product that Adobe manufacture. They also have Adobe InDesign CS3. Bill Blinn has posted an enthusiastic review of InDesign CS3 on his Techbyter blog. He says it is now ready to handle long documents, and I started wondering whether Adobe might have plans to merge the two products into one, which would worry me, as the emphasis in InDesign seems to be on the graphical publishing market, and on integration with other Adobe design and graphics software tools.

I raised this point on the Adobe FrameMaker group on Facebook (*), and I had a reply from Sarah O'Keefe of Scriptorium, who pointed out that there were three major features of FrameMaker which InDesign CS3 did not yet have: support for structured authoring; cross-referencing; and conditional text. Sarah also referred me to a product comparison on the Adobe site. I found the existence of the comparison reassuring, for the time being at least.

(* Yes, oh dear yes, I am on Facebook. But at least I am a member of some professional groups, like the FrameMaker one, so I am not wasting my time there entirely!)

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Apres Duchamp: Spam as Poetry

Today I received an unsolicited commercial email message (otherwise known as spam) which seemed almost elegiac. Of course, I knew that the text was made up of snippets culled from various websites and combined randomly to try and get past spam filters, but I was truly moved by the poetry. (Well, not truly!)

The Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp exhibited a signed porcelain urinal in 1917, and went on to claim that found objects (or "readymades") become art when the artist chooses them, names them, and signs them.

Following Duchamp's theory and practice, I could claim the following spam extract as "my" poem. It is an object I found in my email inbox, I have chosen it, I have named it "Apres Duchamps" and I have done the equivalent of signing it by publishing it on my blog. Here it is:

Before those virile women!
Dismal, endless plain—
Comes up with as a means to its own end.
Calling me to you with wild gesturings
In realms of dingy gloom and deep crevasse
Of too much truth to do much more than lie
Seen. What you know is only manifest
III. Earliest Recorded Northern Explorers: The Greeks and the Vikings
trainer flips young alligators over on their backs,
Late February, and the air's so balmy
Toward the still dab of white that oscillates
Père and Mère Chose could be in conversation
Unreadable from behind—they are well down
That images of roads, whether composed
That images of roads, whether composed
trainer flips young alligators over on their backs,
and the Splendid Splinter. For a few dreamy dollars,
Through the back of the picture at the patch of white
And still my mind goes groping in the mud to bring

I could do that, but someone else has got there before me. Long before me. Spamdom is an entire site dedicated to "the wisdom hidden in unwanted email". Spamdom has several more elegiac passages just like this one, perhaps all the of them lost sections of one greater work (but more probably all generated automatically by the same spamming tool). Always the "late adopter", me...

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Usability from the trenches

Mark Liberman is a linguist and mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also has some responsibilities for student accommodation.
He has written a wonderful article about an example of poor usability for a new computer application which was supposed to let students report facilities problems - leaky pipes, blocked drains, or burnt-out light-bulbs - to the facilities management service.
In "When bad interaction happens to good people" on his Language Log blog, Liberman describes what was wrong with the new software and the innovative way in which he addressed the issue - he wrote an "underground guide" in the style of a guide to a computer game!
This story elegantly highlights what tech writers and usability consultants have been trying to say for years: make user tasks the focus of user interactions with systems. Don't make people struggle guess what the system wants them to do, instead create the system - or at least its UI - so that it anticipates what the users needs are.

Word at work

Last week I took part in two separate discussions on two different mailing lists on the same topic: the difficulties tech writers face when trying to implement Microsoft Word document templates across a department or organisation.

There are good reasons to try and do this. If everyone uses the same document templates, then there is a greater chance that you can get documents that are consistent both in terms of content areas addressed, and in terms of visual appearance.

Management often have unrealistic expectations of what a Word template might achieve: consistency, accuracy, minimum effort by subject experts, reduced need for specialist tech writers and editors and so on. They are surprised when this doesn't happen.

In my view the problem isn't technological but educational. Nearly everyone who uses Microsoft Word thinks that they are not only a great writer, but a great editor and a great typographer too. (In contrast, not many people think that because they use Microsoft Excel they're automatically a great accountant.) Tech writers frequently complain that however far they go in providing standard paragraph and character styles in Microsoft Word, document authors always seem to prefer direct formatting, just because it's there, and because they've never been taught anything different.

In my experience, people are happy to take some time to learn how to use the tools they have available. Even those alleged "prima donnas" of the hi-tech world, the people who write flawless code in their sleep, are grateful to be told about a few shortcuts to better Word documents. But unfortunately, few organisations are prepared to invest the time and resources in teaching everyone how to use the Office Suite tools they have available. And that's a huge hurdle to overcome.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

A different 'type' of film

My family gave me my first introduction to the mysterious world of book creation. One of my mother's sisters was a freelance typographer, and she would carefully mark up galley proofs and layout sheets with instructions for compositors and editors. When I was a child - long before the personal computer arrived on the scene - the most amazing new tool at my aunt's desk was a box of Letraset lettering sheets. Using these new "dry-transfer" or "rub-down" letters (invented in 1959) she could easily show, as well as tell, the printers which font and type size she wanted. This was a technological leap forward for her, and made her life a lot easier.

I remember watching her at work in her attic studio, where she had sheets of all kinds of typeface samples, as well as more conventional printed books of type designs. In my mind's eye there is one, and only one, typeface that evokes that time. Then it was new and modern and exciting, but today it is so ubiquitous and commonplace that it is almost invisible.

That typeface is Helvetica, and to mark its 50th birthday, director Gary Hustwit has made a film about it. I'm planning to go and see it when it comes to the ICA in London in September.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Technical Writing blogs

I have just added the details of this blog to Tom Johnson's Tech Writer Blog Directory.

There are a number of bloggers listed there who I know personally from various conferences and activities (mainly STC-related), including Mark Levinson, Rhonda Bracey, and Sarah O'Keefe, and other names I recognise as being "the usual suspects" (that is, regular contributors) from a number of tech writing related email lists I subscribe to.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The Tool Bar and Grill

Ever since I became a technical writer back in the mid 1990s I have been impressed by the friendly and helpful attitude of almost every single person I've met in this profession. I have always benefited from the experiences of my colleagues, and I hope I now do my bit to help other professionals by contributing to various mailing lists and being active in the STC. (By the way, the new STC Europe SIG now has its own web page.)

One of the people I worked with in those early days was a particularly helpful, friendly, and good-natured colleague. He is now writing a blog about free and low-priced tools and utilities that can make your computing life that much easier. I am delighted to recommend Jonathan's Tool Bar & Grill.

(Now is that one word or two? "tool bar" or "toolbar"? or should it be capitalised as "Toolbar", or even "Tool Bar"? Answers, on a postcard please, to Tech Writing Pedants Anonymous...)

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Good news for technical writers

Adobe Corporation have announced the arrival of FrameMaker 8, the long-awaited update to the popular tool for technical publications.

In their press release Adobe point out that FrameMaker 8 includes support for Unicode, for Flash, and for 3D. Of greater importance to many technical writers is the support for XML publication and in particular for DITA.

Many technical writers (including me) have long preferred FrameMaker as their authoring tool of choice for long and complex technical publications. FrameMaker handles multi-chapter publications with ease, allows writers to specify conditional text, and manages paragraph and character formats robustly. Even paragraph numbering works! (Paragraph numbering is often cited as a major source of problems with one well-known tool.)

FrameMaker is certainly more expensive than some of its rivals, and people say it is more difficult to larn, but I am one of the many technical writers who thinks that it is worth the money and the effort, and I am looking forward to getting FrameMaker 8.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

David Crystal in his own words

David Crystal has written a blog for the Guardian on Punctuation is no place for zero tolerance.
Perhaps he read what I wrote here the other day.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Alan Johnston freed

As I'm sure you've heard, the BBC journalist Alan Johnston has been released after 114 days as a hostage in Gaza, and is today home with his family.

I hosted a "Release Alan Johnston" button and link on this blog which I am now delighted to have removed.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Don't be dogmatic

I'd like to make a point related to my post last week on punctuation punditry. It's about dogma. I don't like it, especially not when it's applied to language, or even to technical writing tools.

Being suspicious about language dogma isn't a permit for a free-for-all. Here's something from David Crystal's The Stories of English, where he is commenting on the English language outside the UK and the USA:

.. new standards are evolving [in other countries] too - varieties which are not identical to British or American English, but which are fulfilling the same role in providing educated people within the community with an agreed set of conventions to facilitate efficient and effective intelligibility.

I think that this is a useful definition for languages in general: " an agreed set of conventions to facilitate efficient and effective intelligibility". It allows the existence of many different sets of conventions, depending on the context - the language community for any given communication act or set of acts.

I subscribe to an email discussion list for copy-editors which this week discussed the phrases "bring to the boil" and "bring to a boil" in the context of recipe books. One of these expressions is the correct usage in the USA ("bring to a boil") and the other ("bring to the boil") is the correct usage in the UK. Neither is wrong in its own context. Clearly, UK recipe books and US recipe books each have their own set of conventions for intelligibility.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Punctuation pundits (part 2)

My wife went to a lecture yesterday by Professor David Crystal. He remarked that he had been prompted to write his latest book, The Fight for English, partly in reply to the hype around Lynn Truss's book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Having spent much of his distinguished career explaining how English has grown and developed into the range of varieties it exhibits today, and being delighted at watching the way technology was clearly continuing to change the way we use English, what upset him about Truss's book was its subtitle, which used the words "zero tolerance". Crystal pointed out that the conventions about apostrophe use - don't use them for plurals, do use them for possessive case, except for the possessive case of personal pronouns - was one of the most recently introduced punctuation rules. Parts of Dr. Johnson's dictionary don't follow what we regard as standard practice.

I enjoyed reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves, as entertainment. I took it no more seriously than Richard Lederer's entertaining series of books on the English language. (Steven Pinker, for example, has criticised Lederer, and others like him, calling them "language-mavens". Pinker says that the way these sorts of writers ignore the fact that language is a biological phenomenon is like criticising dolphins for not swimming properly.)

I was surprised, and a little disturbed, when I heard that people were treating Eats, Shoots & Leaves as an authoritative manual of style. I can't blame Ms. Truss for taking advantage of the enthusiastic reception her book received, or for other people jumping on the bandwagon. But scholarly reference it ain't.

Punctuation pundits (part 1)

A friend has pointed out this site: The "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks.

I "love" it!

Monday, 25 June 2007

Too much content, perhaps?

When I left the STC Conference on Saturday, one of my fellow-delegates said "I'll poke you later this week". She was not threatening me with minor violence, she was simply saying that she'd contact me on Facebook, the social networking site.

My excuse for joining Facebook was to keep in touch with my son as he was gallivanting around the world on his pre-university gap year. (As I am about 2.5 times the average age of a Facebook member I felt I needed an excuse.)

Apart from giving a new meaning to the verb "to poke", Facebook has become quite a phenomenon. According to today's Guardian, there is now a documented "class divide" between Facebook and its rival MySpace, where Facebook appears to have a more up-market clientele. In addition, there are now fears that all the user-generated content (so beloved of the "Web 2.0" cognoscenti) on Facebook, Myspace and the like is taking up too much bandwidth on the Internet, and so businesses are suffering!

Sunday, 24 June 2007

You've just missed an amazing conference

One of my voluntary activities is serving on the Council of the STC UK Chapter. This weekend we held a "Visual Communications" conference at the Moller Centre, at Churchill College, Cambridge. We had some tremendous presentations from some really great speakers. (The details are here.)
We could easily have accommodated twice as many delegates as we had, and we need to work out why more people didn't come along. Perhaps the focus of the conference was too narrow? After all, many technical writers are more interested in words than in pictures. Perhaps having a weekend event discouraged some people from attending? But when we hold a mid-week event people say that they can't get time off work. Perhaps we didn't give enough publicity, or we started publicising the event too late? I think this is certainly true.
Whatever the reason, everyone who attended thought the event was excellent, so we must mark this down as an educational success, and we must build on this for the future.

Friday, 22 June 2007

X-Pubs again

Apologies to my regular readers (both of you) for the hiatus in my blogging efforts. Life, work, and various voluntary activities have been taking up my time recently. More on this later.

Earlier this month I attended the X-Pubs conference. If you hadn't read my earlier post in which I mentioned this event, you might have thought that "X-pubs" either had something to do with "X-rated" publications, or perhaps with former landlords of licensed premises ("ex pubs").

The truth is far more prosaic - it was about publishing documents with XML, and included lots of references to DITA and S-1000-D.

These are all standards for creating structured documentation, and they are all in their own ways descendants of SGML, the grand-daddy of markup languages, that became an international standard in the mid 1980s. I have always found the principle of mark-up languages to be profoundly simple. Separate content from formatting, and mark content according to function. Then let formatting follow function, and don't format text for any other reason. I realise I may sound like a bit of a Luddite for saying this, but the direct formatting tools available in a certain very popular word processing packages lead to very bad documents from the point of view of consistency an durability. I pride myself on being able to fix them, so I shouldn't really complain too loudly.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Worse than hieroglyphics

An article by Sam Dunn in today's Independent on Sunday compares the user information that accompanies financial products to Egyptian hieroglyphics, and unsurprisingly, the hieroglyphics come off best.

For some unscrupulous companies, jargon and obscure language can help to sell products or services. Customers cowed or dazzled by technical or impressive-sounding language will be reluctant to shop around for alternatives.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Possible DITA specializations for research reports

In a recent blog post Michael Priestly of IBM mentioned an informal meeting he attended while at the STC Conference in Minneapolis earlier this month about the possibility of developing DITA specializations for research reports.

Michael Priestly blogging about DITA isn't remarkable of course, as he is one of the people who invented it. The remarkable thing is that the meeting he mentions was initiated by my friend Ant Davey, who is one of my colleagues on the board of the STC UK Chapter.

I am looking forward to catching up with Michael Priestly at the X-Pubs 2007 conference in Reading in about two weeks time.

I look forward to catching up with Ant as well. If he's not at the Reading conference, I am sure he'll be at the STC UK Chapter Conference on Visual Communications, which is taking place in Cambridge on 23rd and 24th June 2007.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Google changes policy on essay-writing adverts

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problem of cheating and plagiarism.

Now I learn from the BBC that Google has changed its policy on adverts for essay-writing services.

According to the BBC article, managers of some essay-writing companies say they ar running legitimate businesses, and that they always tell purchasers that essays are to be used for research purposes only. However,

[the] university organisation, Universities UK, rejected as "absurd" the claim that students would pay "hundreds of pounds for model answers" and then not "submit them as their own work".

I must say that I am delighted by Google's change of heart. I'd like to se it as another example of consumer power, like the vegetarian revolt against Mars on animal products in their chocolate bars.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Prescott's English

Deputy Prime Minister and former merchant navy steward John Prescott is to step down when Tony Blair resigns. Writing in the Independent on 16th May 2007 Andy McSmith reflected on 10 years of idiosyncratic usage in "Who needs verbs? Prescott in his own words"

Is "VE" the real threat to "TW"?

I noticed that the BBC's economics editor, Evan Davis, had a blog today about "VE" - "Value Engineering". Evans writes:
at its narrowest, value engineering is about paring costs. And that probably remains its most common everyday application: thinking about every aspect of a process and a product to deliver an objective as cost-effectively as possible

I think that's what happens quite often to my profession of technical writing ("TW" to its intimates). Once managers decide that "no-one reads the manual" - an assertion generally made without any objective evidence - then it's easy to say "we don't need to bother to write the manual" as well.
It's a huge and ongoing challenge for technical writers to demonstrate the value they do add in everything they do.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Does Web 2.0 actually exist?

Today (14th May 2007) Scott Abel, "The Content Wrangler", is giving a presentation at the 54th STC Conference on Web 2.0, whatever that may be, and its impact on technical communication.
I admire Scott, who is an expert in his field, and a great speaker. I just happen to think that the phrase "Web 2.0" is marketing hype, rather than a meaningful description of anything. It's well known that Tim Berners-Lee himself has said much the same thing.
I recently read a report published in February 2007 by JISC, "What is Web 2.0", in which the argument on whether there is such a thing as Web 2.0 is characterised as "a tale of two Tims", one of whom being Berners-Lee, and the other being Tim O'Reilly, founder of the high-tech publishing company that bears his name, and a great populariser of the term "Web 2.0".

Friday, 11 May 2007

Difficult decisions and hard choices

Tony's Blair's announcement of his departure from No. 10 Downing Street has naturally dominated the headlines today. There has been much written about his "legacy". I want to draw attention to one less discussed aspect of that legacy - his deliberate misuse of words.

On many occasions in the last decade Blair has declared himself to be proud of making "difficult" decisions, or "hard" choices. He said this about the abolition of free University tuition in England, for example. I don't think that was a difficult decision at all. Allowing Universities to collect money from students as well as directly from the government (who continue to contribute about 90% of the Universities' budgets by direct grants anyway) wasn't a difficult thing to do. I don't think that the way this decision was reached would have been particularly arduous either.

Let me be clear. Blair's use of the term "difficult" was simply a euphemism for "unpopular". Doing things that are "difficult" or "hard" (especially if you deliberately choose to do them) means that you are courageous, steadfast, and tenacious, admirable characteristics for a leader.

Choosing words that make you sound like a hero when you are doing something you know your voters neither understand nor support is neither hard nor difficult.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Technology we take for granted

I was in central London this morning and I needed to find the nearest branch of a particular bank. So I used my phone. But I didn't make a phone call, instead I opened an Internet browser on my phone, searched for the bank in question, used their "branch locator" feature, entered a partial postcode, and got a map of where to go. Easy.

Invented English: "smokefree"

In order to create publicity material to accompany the implementation of a law making it illegal to smoke in enclosed places, the UK Department of Health (DoH) have invented a new word: "smokefree".

In fact they have an entire campaign going on about "Smokefree England".

I am in despair about this. Not, let me explain, about the legislation. I am all in favour of banning smoking in pubs and restaurants as well as in the workplace. But I am in despair at this new word, and the way the DoH have chosen to use it.

It appears to be an adjective, and to mean "free of smoke". But in their literature and on their web site the DoH have applied this adjective so widely as to make it meaningless. For a start, will the entire country of England be free of smoke of all kinds and in all places for 1st July? In fact, it will only be free of tobacco smoke in designated places. So "smokefree England" doesn't make sense.

The literature prepared by the DoH refers to the "smokefree law". Does that mean the legislation itself was free of smoke?

And don't get me started on the new verb the DoH have introduced: "to go smokefree"!

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Release Alan Johnston

I've added a banner to this blog as part of the campaign for Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist kidnapped in Gaza on April 12th 2007. I am just trying to do a little to help the campaign for his release.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Orwell Prize

I was very pleased to see that there's an Orwell Prize for political writing in the UK. This year's winner (for a book) was Professor Peter Hennessy (more), and the BBC 2 Newsnight programme also won a special award. Hennessy's book, Having It So good: Britain In The Fifties, is on the Macmillan period, and as a child of that era myself I am pleased to see it being given serious recognition.

I was first introduced to Orwell the political essayist when I was at school and I have admired him ever since. I always introduce my students to the rules for good writing that he promulgated in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language", and challenge them to devise better rules or to demonstrate that his rules are no longer valid. They haven't succeeded yet. I don't think many of the students I meet think of Winston Smith when they hear the words "Big Brother", more's the pity.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Cheating and plagiarism

When I started this blog I subscribed to Google's AdSense service to try to derive a little bit of revenue. Many bloggers do the same. The Google ads change regularly, without any intervention on my part. I recently noticed one which I really didn't approve of, so I decided to disabled the Google ads completely until I work out if I can manage them in some way.

There are lots of commercial services around offering to write academic papers at various levels for a fee. It was a Google ad for one of these services that prompted me to remove the ad service from my blog. From what I've seen you can get someone to write anything from a six-year-old's homework to a full doctoral thesis, and many of these services even offer a "100% plagiarism-free guarantee". I am sure that there are some students, harassed and short of time, who are tempted to use these services. Some of them may even think that as the bought essays are "guaranteed plagiarism-free" they would not violate their institution's rules on plagiarism. Oh dear.

Every institution I am or have been associated with as a student or as a teacher has rules in place to prevent cheating of all kinds. Plagiarism - copying from someone else's work and presenting it as your own - is only one kind of cheating. Paying someone to do your work may not be plagiarism, but it is still cheating. If you submit an essay you have purchased as your own work, that's cheating. Even if the essay is brilliant work, it's not your work, and you can't get credit for it. The cheating is in the fact that you didn't do the work, and that you want to get academic credit for something you didn't do. It is the same as buying a qualification, or paying someone else to take a driving test for you. You wouldn't want to be treated by a doctor who had bought their qualification, or live in a house certified as safe by a structural engineer who had bought the answers to their final exam.

So please, resist temptation, and don't cheat.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Something I didn't know about my local library service

I've known for a long time that the Oxford University Press offers a commercial subscription service to a selection of online dictionaries and reference books, known unsurprisingly as Oxford Reference Online.

What I didn't know was that for the last year anyone who has a membership card to almost any public library service in England - or to one of many, though not all the public library services in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic - can access all of Oxford Reference Online, and the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary online for free, just by entering their library card number.

In fact the local library service for the London Borough where I live, Barnet, has gone even further, and offers free access to a range of online reference services.

Why didn't anyone tell me about this sooner?

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Learning from Jane

I have always enjoyed citing Jane Austen's use of "their" with a singular antecedent in rebuttal of the pedants who claim it must only be used with the plural (see the reference on Henry Churchyard's Linguistics page, and many other citations on the Internet). As a technical writer using "their" in the singular is particularly useful (you can search for "+Austen +their +singular"). It is a boon to write phrases such as "the user may change their own password" and the like, rather than the inelegant "his or her password". (I do know that there are other ways round this particular conundrum which may more easily appease the more formidable of the pedants.)

I was delighted therefore to glean another potential tidbit of linguistic knowledge from the lips of Jane Austen earlier this week - though this time, it was from a fictional incarnation of Jane rather than from the great lady herself. The film Becoming Jane is the story of a love affair which may or may not have taken place between the young Jane Austen (played by Anne Hathaway) and Thomas Lefroy (James McAvoy). An early encounter between them is at a local ball, while the sophisticated Lefroy is still disdainful of the modes and manners of the rural way of life. Jane tells Thomas that the the English "country dance" is so named because it derives from the French "contre-danse" (as couples stand opposite each other) rather than from the fact that it is danced by people in the countryside who know no better.

This etymology sounds plausible enough. But a good researcher always checks his sources so I trundled off to my trusty OED to see what they had to say on the subject (note the plural pronoun with the singular antecedent again). Well, they were having none of it. They could find no evidence at all for the assertion that the French term "contre-danse" predated the English "country dance", and called the derivation quoted by the fictional Jane "erroneous". They did however go into some detail on the origin and popularity of this incorrect etymology, even citing an article from the Gentleman's Magazine in 1758 which supports it.

So although the etymology quoted by the fictional Jane to the fictional Lefroy was not correct, it is certainly something that an educated person in the 1790s may well have believed to be true. An accurate inaccuracy, in fact, as Jane herself might have put it.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Happy Birthday Helvetica

The fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the Helvetica typeface is being marked by a special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The importance and impact of Helvetica is discussed in a news article in the Washington Post on 7th April 2007 under the headline "Oh Yeah, You Know the Type"
(free registration required)

Friday, 6 April 2007

The job spec isn't up to the job

I often get invitations from recruitment agencies that want me to apply for jobs entirely outside my experience, and that makes me worry about the competency of some of the people who work for recruitment agencies, particularly in the high-volume hi-tech sector. But what worries me more is the inability of recruiters, and by implication the inability of the companies that hire them, to recognise that they need technical writers and information designers to do certain kinds of jobs. The job specs they write just aren't up to the job.

The recruitment industry relies more and more on automation which results in anomalies that intelligent human intervention would avoid. For example, a keyword search finds something without understanding the context, so I am invited to apply for a job as a "SharePoint Developer" because my CV mentions that I once "published documents to a SharePoint portal".

Earlier this week I had an experience which reminded me that the key distinction between good recruitment companies and poor ones is not just "human intervention" in the process, but "intelligent human intervention". I nearly deleted an email inviting me to appy for a role as a "Business Analyst" when I noticed what were some indicatiors thatthe job might not be irrelevant to me after all: "RoboHelp" and "training material". It was actually a contract role at an investment bank, developing training material and delivering training, which is something I could definitely do.

So I wrote back to the recruiter, and said I could do this, told them when I was next available, and what my fee would be. To my surprise, the recruiter phoned me back 5 minutes later. Don't get your hopes up, however, as here's the conversation we had:

Recruiter: "Do you have experience in investment banking?"
Me: "I have done a short project for [well-known bank], but the fact that I know how to develop and deliver training material is surely much more important?"

Recruiter: "Oh no, the client only wants people with a background in banking"
Me: "I think I would be far better for this job than a banker, because I know how to analyse tasks, and therefore learn people's training needs, I know how to write tutorials and training manuals, and I know how to teach a training course. I don't need to be a banker to do that, even in a bank!"

Recruiter: "But have you worked in banking?"
Me: "No, but why don't you send them my CV and let them decide?"

Recruiter: "Oh no, I couldn't do that, my client won't look at it."

As you can see, the human was there, but there was no sign of intelligence!

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Notes from the Information Design Conference (part 1)

On 29th and 30th March I was at the Information Design Conference 2007 in Greenwich, London.

"Information design" sums up better than any other phrase what it is that I am trying to do when I work on a user guide or an online help system or any other documentation product for a client. I want to make information accessible, relevant, understandable and timely. And I want to focus on the needs of the information consumer. I really enjoyed spending two days in the company of about one hundred other people who share this passion, from a range of disciplines including graphic design, typography, usability, interaction design, architecture, environmental design, and even technical communication like me.

One of the most striking things I learnt from the conference is that the user (or the customer, or the audience, or the visitor) gets forgotten by the designer of the product time and time again - whether the product is a loan application form, a government web site, an airport concourse, or a museum gallery. It is the most common complaint that information designers across all disciplines have. Some ID practitioners who work in the built environment poured scorn on architects who forget that people actually have find their way round buildings in exactly the same terms that I would use to criticise a software engineer who designs an interaction screen that has no relevance to the tasks a user actually has to perform. Putting the user first is what information design is all about.

In the coming days I plan to add more notes from the conference. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Don't take this medicine

If being pregnant isn't difficult enough, trying to follow product instructions for medicines when you're pregnant seems to be extraordinarily difficult.

My daughter had a bad headache last week and took a couple of over-the-counter painkillers. She was intrigued by the Patient Information leaflet, which is a heavily regulated document. (Perhaps reading the small print is an inherited trait - would she have bothered reading the leaflet if she didn't have someone who writes instructions as a parent?)

My daughter noticed that there was a strong warning not to take this particular medicine "during the last three months of pregnancy". In a separate section there was a warning to ask for a doctor's advice before taking the medicine "during the first six months of pregnancy or while breastfeeding."

"Why couldn't all the instructions to pregnant women be kept in one place?" my daughter asked. A very good question.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

The prepositions are fine, but...

A friend asked me today whether it was OK to use a preposition at the end of a sentence in a training manual he was writing. I was able to reassure him that his use of prepositions was fine. I even quoted the "Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Style" (Oxford University Press, 2004, p.96) which unambiguously rubbishes the "no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence" rule:

"Some people argue that you should never place
a preposition at the end of a sentence...
This opinion is...completely wrong. Writers have been
placing prepositions at the end of sentences for
centuries, for the very good reason that this
is often the best place for them...
So this is one "rule" that can safely be ignored."

However, as you can see below, my friend had been so concerned about this non-rule that he had blundered into some very bad referencing instead. Here's what he originally wrote:

"COO users will not be able to view records that
are sitting in the HR bucket. HR users will be able
to view all records, no matter which bucket they
are sitting in."

When I pointed out to him what he had actually written, he laughed and cheerfully went back to his own "bucket" to make some corrections.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Rewriting the Bible

Reading an inflight magazine on a flight from Spain to the UK, I saw an article on the restoration of some frescoes in a church in Mallorca. One had a picture of a scene in which Jesus turns water into wine. Most English versions of this Bible story call it "the Miracle at Cana".

It appears that the publishers of this magazine forgot to have their translations read by a copy-editor who could check the facts in their context. Or perhaps they had decided that the translation they had sounded Biblical enough so it didn't need to be checked. Shame about that, because they called the picture in the frescoe "the Miracle at Canaan"!

Better grammar - at your local supermarket now!

According to a news item on the Plain English Campaign's web site, the Tesco supermarket chain is to replace the signs reading "10 items or less" with new signs reading "Up to 10 items".
Lovers of good English usage have always been infuriated by the old signs because they ignored the rule that "fewer" is used with countable nouns and "less" is only used with non-countable nouns, as in "I worked fewer hours last week and so I earned less money".

Now I wonder when supermarkets are going to stop selling "stationary"?

(Many thanks to my friend Karen M. for pointing out this news item.)