Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Demise of Readable, Understandable English--From a Reader's Viewpoint

It's sad.

In my daily running around, I see flyers, brochures, huge banners, technical manuals, magazines, newspapers, non-fiction books, and novels peppered with typos, spelling errors, and grammatical gaffes.

I belong to "professional" groups--some of them groups for writers and editors... and I see typos, spelling errors, and grammatical errors in the posts. Some of these errors are things like misused apostrophes and subject-verb agreement. Things that are simple enough that they should have been caught. Aaargh!

And yes, I, too have occasionally had butter-fingers and have hit the "send/submit/enter" button without noticing that I misspelled something or that I missed a word. Typing fast on a laptop when being distracted by the dog wanting to go out or my wife fussing with me to come to dinner is a major hazard in creating perfect text--at least for me. However, writing in a forum or fooling around on the web while on the couch at home is different than when working on a professional job. As a writer, I value an extra set of eyes (another trusted reader) to view my text to ensure that I haven't made any serious gaffes. As an editor, I offer that service to my fellow writers.

I'm disappointed that companies in the U.S. don't seem to care about the editorial quality of their publications, their internal documents, and their customer-facing documents any more. They are so concerned about "saving money" that they no longer see the need to pay for U.S. based "editorial professionals" to help them with their documents. If they DO decide to get their documents written or edited, more and more are not only outsourcing their documentation, but they are offshoring it--sending it off to India. What they get back may be what resembles English, but it usually reflects the difference in culture and languages (the folks in India retain the English of the old U.K. Colonial times... and this makes for awkward reading for U.S. readership--some of the old U.K. expressions don't quite translate well into U.S. English).

Whether or not you liked the above comment doesn't matter. It's a fact. If you try to read some of the offshored documents, if you are a native U.S. English speaker, you will see and know what I mean. This is similar to the documentation that accompanies products made in China or Japan (or Romania or Italy, for that matter)--they find someone in the village who has "learned English" in the local high school or technical school... and they assign the person to "translate" the assembly or operation instructions into English. That person does it frequently enough, and they can market themselves as a "technical writer" or "technical editor" or "translator"--then they get more gigs doing the same for other products. If you've ever bought a VCR or other contraption, just check the user's manual to see what I mean.

Hey, more kudos to the person for giving it their best shot. I've taken Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Mandarin in high school and college... and yeah, given enough time with a bi-lingual dictionary, I could probably translate a user manual, say for a VCR, into Japanese, Russian, Spanish, or Mandarin. But I guarantee that the receiving end of that manual would be rolling on the floor laughing their butts off at how incompetent and hilarious my "translation" would be. Well... the same goes for stuff coming in OUR direction.

You need a final editorial check by a native-speaker of the target language to review the doc for accurate and readable English. If you want the target readers to be in the U.K.--then get a U.K. editor to review it. If you want the target readers to be in the U.S.--then get a U.S. editor to review it. That's the only way to keep your documentation from being trashed by your customers--your end users.

Will it get worse? Perhaps. That's why I offer my services to help companies improve the quality of their documentation.


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