Increase the clarity of text by using ASD Simplified Technical English (STE)

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CIDM Information Management News May 2015: Increase the clarity of text by using ASD Simplified Technical English (STE)

Increase the clarity of text by using ASD Simplified Technical English (STE)

Mike Unwalla, TechScribe

Unclear instructions can cause accidents. Simplified Technical English (STE) helps to make text clear, but adopting STE can be difficult for management.

Unclear instructions cause accidents

Human failures can cause disasters. “Typical examples of immediate causes and contributing factors for human failures are… missing or unclear instructions” (www.hse.gov.uk/humanfactors/topics/core2.pdf).

Think about this sentence: “Find the person on the hill with a telescope.” Three interpretations are possible:

  • A person has a telescope. The person is on a hill. Find the person.
  • There are 2 hills. On one hill, there is a telescope and a person. Find the person.
  • A person is on a hill. Use a telescope to find the person.

Think about this sentence: “Replace the bolt in the cover.” Two interpretations are possible.

  • Put the bolt back in the cover.
  • Remove the bolt and put a new bolt in the cover.

STE helps to make text clear

Possibly, the context helps a reader to know the correct meaning of text. However, a better option is to make sure that text has only one meaning. ASD Simplified Technical English (STE) helps to make text as clear as possible (www.asd-ste100.org).

The specification for STE is ASD-STE100, an international specification for the preparation of maintenance documentation in a controlled language. The specification contains these parts:

  • A dictionary of words and their meanings
  • A set of rules for writing.

Many maintenance engineers use English as a second language. They are intelligent people, but some do not know English well. STE uses simple words and simple sentence structures.

The dictionary contains a list of words that a writer can use. For example, a writer can use ‘make sure’, but not synonyms such as ‘verify’, ‘check’, ‘confirm’ or ‘ensure’.

Usually, each word is permitted in only one part of speech. For example, the word ‘oil’ is specified as a noun:

  • “Oil the valve” is not permitted, because in this sentence ‘oil’ is a verb.
  • “The oil is dirty” is permitted, because in this sentence ‘oil’ is a noun.

Each word has only one meaning. For example, the verb ‘to follow’ means ‘to come after’. ‘To follow’ does not mean ‘to obey’. Instead of “Follow the safety instructions,” write, “Obey the safety instructions.”

The rules for writing specify the structure of the text. For example, an instruction must have not more than 20 words. (This rule puts a number on the plain English guideline to keep sentences short.) Tenses are restricted. For example, a writer must not use the present perfect tense. As an alternative, the writer uses the simple past tense:

  • “We have received the technical reports from HQ” is not permitted, because the sentence uses the present perfect tense.
  • “We received the technical reports from HQ” is permitted, because the sentence uses the simple past tense. Each organization has its own special vocabulary. Thus, STE lets an organization create a dictionary of approved nouns, approved adjectives, and approved verbs.

STE in your organization

If management decides to use STE, a possible problem is resistance from writers. Many writers do not want to use a controlled language, because a controlled language restricts their creativity. At the Technical Communication UK Conference in 2010 (http://technicalcommunicationuk.com), I asked 39 technical writers whether they use a controlled language such as STE. One person lifted his hand. Then, I asked who wanted to use a controlled language. The person lowered his hand. Not one person wanted to use a controlled language.

To write STE correctly, software is not necessary. However, software is useful. Although the STE rules are simple, the specification contains many thousands of terms (keywords). To remember all the rules for all the terms is difficult. For example, is the term ‘fluid’ approved? If ‘fluid’ is approved, is it a noun, an adjective, or both? Without software, a writer must frequently refer to the specification to make sure that a term is used correctly.

Before your writers can use software effectively, the software must ‘know’ about the technical terms that your organization uses. The management of terms is difficult and can prevent an organization from using STE. Ideally, at a minimum, your organization must keep a record of these things:

  • Approved nouns, approved adjectives, and approved verbs
  • Not-approved synonyms of the approved terms
  • Examples of correct text and incorrect text

A useful ‘Comparison Guide to STE Checker Tools’ is available from Argos Translations (http://ste.argostranslations.com/downloads/). The guide compares four popular software tools for STE. Other software is available. For a list of all the STE language checkers that I know about, refer to www.techscribe.co.uk/techw/asd-simplified-technical-english.htm#language-checkers.

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