JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

In an eight article series for the e-newsletter, CIDM will be discussing buying tips for typical services and products that you, as an information developer, might be interested in buying.

This is the third in our e-newsletter series of purchasing guides for purchasing information-development products and services. In this issue we look at a controlled language system.

Language Quality Systems

Language quality support systems assist writers in maintaining a consistent vocabulary and style, following the authoring guidelines established by your organization. They can be most effective in introducing new writers to your standards, especially those for whom English or another source language in which you write is a second language. They help to reduce the cost of translation, as we mentioned in the Translation and Localization Buyer’s Guide. If you control your source language, you make more effective use of your Translation Memory. You also ensure that translators are able to apply the Translation Memory more consistently when they encounter new, but consistently written, content.

Some language quality support systems emphasize developing a simplified or controlled language, helping to ensure that writers are not averaging 50 words per sentence or favoring complex sentence structures when they are writing for average readers. Simplified language is often mandated by some governments at a national or local level. Some state governments in the US mandate simplified languages for official documents. Some government agencies mandate reading levels so that documents support average readers instead of experts.

For example, in Europe writers of aircraft maintenance documentation are restricted to a 985-word vocabulary because the instructions must be readable in English by people for whom English is not a native language.

What’s Available

Two types of systems are available to help you control the language used by your writers in the source:

  • Complete quality language systems supported by a linguistic analysis of your guidelines and the language problems typically encountered by your writers and editors
  • Minimal quality language systems that support basic vocabulary and the most common errors

Costs vary considerably, but as you undoubtedly know, you get what you pay for. The more complete systems are more costly but apply rules more thoroughly and effectively. However, even minimal systems help to promote quality in the source language, increasing readability and usability, reducing translation costs, and making automated translations more accurate.

Some quality language systems implement well-defined requirements from government agencies or international standards organizations. For example, if you are working within the S1000D standard for aircraft maintenance, you should look for a system that supports the limited technical vocabulary required by the ASD-STE100 standard.

Features that Count

The features associated with a quality language system vary by the cost of the system and the amount of work required to implement the system. Complete systems usually begin with a comprehensive linguistic analysis of your documents, especially draft documents before they are corrected by editors. During the analysis, linguistic experts define the most common problems to be addressed by the system. For example, you may know that many of your non-native writers in English have difficulty determining the correct articles to use (a, an, and the) because their native languages do not include articles. If your writers have problems with articles, the system can be tuned to assist with this problem.

If you have writers who use British English normally and your standard calls for American English, the system can be set to watch for spelling and terminology differences between the two versions.

Standard features

Spell check – We are all aware that the standard spell check programs that come with word processors are not especially accurate. A quality language system should provide a properly tuned spell check that identifies the words in your technology domain and takes your spelling standards into account. If you prefer, as we do, to avoid unnecessary punctuation in abbreviations like PhD or USA, your system should be able to take these rules into account. Unlike the standard word-processing spell check, the systems should not return trivial and inaccurate changes.

Style check – Some style checking should come as a standard part of the quality language system. For example, you may expect a system to identify the over-use of passive voice in user tasks. The system should also take your particular style rules into account. Our standard, for example, flags the word “this” used as a noun. We prefer that the noun be specified rather than referenced from the previous sentence because we find that the reference is often ambiguous.

Terminology – A quality language system should learn the terminology used in your technology domain and enforce that terminology by flagging new terms that are not in your glossary. Terminology check helps to build consistency into your source language and reduce translation costs by more effectively leveraging your Translation Memories.

However, the system should also be able to identify new terms as they occur, flag them for review, and add them to a terminology database. It should also be able to recognize the grammatical variations in the standard terms, including singular and plural differences, adjectives versus nouns, and so on.

Grammar check – A system should, of course, have built in grammar rules that are better controlled than the typical grammar checkers we find in word processors. The system should also incorporate your particular grammar rules and account for the peculiar grammar problems that you may encounter with non-native writers.

Editor Integration

Any quality language system that you evaluate should integrate with the editing tools used by your writers. Today, we find systems that not only integrate with the standard word-processing and desktop-publishing tools, but also include the SGML and XML editors.

If you want to encourage writers outside your organization to use the quality language system, you may want to ensure that the system you select supports most of the tools being used throughout your company.

Ensure that the systems are immediately accessible for your writers. The best accessibility is from an icon on your regular task bar.

Some systems are able to provide assistance to writers interactively. Words and phrases are flagged as the writers work, much like the automated spell check in Microsoft Word. Other systems are designed or can be set to allow writers to ask for a review when they are ready. The systems provide a report of the problems to be examined and corrected. Most systems allow writers to overrule the recommended changes. You should be able, however, to identify some typical problems or terminology that must be corrected.

Workflow Integration

You may want a system that can be integrated into the workflow of your content management system. For example, you may set your workflow to invoke the language check as soon as the writer changes the document state from draft to ready for editing.

Quality Reporting

Most systems provide quality reports to the individual writers in addition to pointing to errors and inconsistencies interactively. Look for systems that also provide you with management reports so that you can monitor the progress being made by your writers. Some organizations use the reports to evaluate progress toward Six Sigma goals of reducing the number of errors.

One manager reports that after applying the quality system for several months, writers are making fewer mistakes initially because they are learning the rules. They want to avoid the system “complaining” about their writing.

If you believe that some writers will not understand the recommended changes, you may want to look for a system that provides help online. The help should explain the rule clearly and demonstrate how to apply it accurately. A help system, combined with a detailed check, can provide your writers with capable but non-judgmental instruction in better writing.

Because we never seem to have enough human editors, the quality language system reporting provides you with editorial coverage that would otherwise require a large staff. Of course, language quality systems are never as comprehensive as well-trained and capable human editors. For some of the most difficult problems, you must ask human editors to intervene and instruct.


Many of the complaints we hear from writers and managers about quality language systems involve performance. Writers complain that running the system against their text takes too long and affects their deadlines. If the system works interactively as the writers are composing their text, consider that it may be too intrusive. Ask references about performance, especially if the systems are being run across the network and apply terminology databases.

Ensure that the vendor provides a consulting service that will help you optimize your workflow so that the system is well received.

How to Choose

If you decide that a quality language system would be a cost-effective and thorough way to improve writing quality and consistency in your organization, consider how to choose among the various systems available.

Research the quality language systems available.

If you enter “controlled language” or “simplified English” into your favorite search engine, you will find links to many of the quality language systems available. Most providers have websites that describe in considerable detail how their systems work. They usually provide demos and may even offer to test one of your compositions.

If you are using a localization service provider to translate your documentation, ask your representative if they can recommend a system. Several of the computer-aided translation tools provide systems that support authors.

Ask for a preliminary analysis of your needs.

As you research the systems, you should, of course, begin to develop your own list of requirements. You may need a specialized technical vocabulary to be built for your technology domain. You may already have a comprehensive style guide that you want to apply. You may have writers who are not native speakers of your source language.

After you have defined your requirements, ask two or three system providers for a preliminary analysis. Remember that a comprehensive analysis is likely to be part of your initial contract, so don’t expect much detail. The preliminary analysis should both confirm your requirements and suggest needs that you may not have identified.

The preliminary analysis should include applying the standard rules in the provider’s system to a sample of your text. You will want to include drafts from your writers before they have been edited.

Ask about compliance with international standards.

Ensure that the system vendor follows international standards for controlled language or simplified English if those standards are applicable to your industry. Discuss how they develop their out-of-the-box set of rules and standard vocabulary sets. You may find a system vendor that has already developed a terminology database for your industry.

Investigate the vendor’s expertise.

Many of the best quality language systems are supported by experts in linguistics and translation. Ask for the credentials of the people who developed the software and now maintain it. Find out about the qualifications of the people who will be assigned to your project. Remember that they may need several weeks or even months to analyze your documents and writers’ drafts before you have a fully functional, well-tuned system in place.

Ask for a proposal.

After you are familiar with the vendors and their credentials, ask for a complete proposal. Be certain that you understand thoroughly the time and costs required to implement the system. If you are looking for a low-cost, out-of-the-box solution, remember that it will not take your special terminology or authoring guidelines into account.

Ask for references

Ask about similar companies that have implemented the quality language system. Find out if the system vendor has customers with requirements similar to yours or who are in a similar industry. Quality vendors will be happy to provide information and references about past projects.

Products Available

Here are a few links to some products:

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