Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Plain English

Everyone has their pet hates. It might be an annoying personal habit, anonymous callers or Paris Hilton. One of mine is the use of geek English in software. Aside from being a barrier to new users, it also undermines an application's status as a high quality piece of software, software that a contributor can be proud of. A few words quite widely seen in KDE circles that I find irritating are "Configure", "Initialize" and "Schema". Configure' and 'Configuration' are bad in particular because:
  • It is a longer and less commonly used word than the shorter alternatives ("Edit","Settings"). This appears to be true of translations into various European languages as well. I have a hypothesis that shorter, more commonly used words are quicker for us to parse when reading user interface elements and enable us to make decisions more rapidly, thereby saving time.

  • It is an unpleasant sounding word. This might sound odd, but I feel that the choice of words or phrases contributes to how polished and attractive an application is.

Obvious suggested replacements:

  • Configure -> Edit, Settings, Preferences

  • Configuration -> Setup, Settings

  • Intialize -> Start, Starting, Loading

As an example, on startup KNetworkManager displays some progress information when connecting to a wireless station. The labels go something like this:

"Activation stage: Preparing device"
"IP configuration started"
"Commit IP configuration"
"Device activated"

Good grief. The only information I really needed to know is:


A week or so ago I became sufficiently frustrated that I went and patched the most visible uses of these words out of KDE's libraries and Konqueror's various settings dialogs. Patches as always:

kdelibs patch
konqueror patch

Incidentally, the reason this is being posted here and not initially to the KDE development mailing lists is to inspire users to complain more about the use of overly technical and/or geeky language in their applications.


Anonymous said...


very good catch. I'm using the german translation and it's often better than your english examples. But I hope german translation will improve through better english.

But what I don't like in your patch, is "Windows (SMB) file systems settings". Most computer user don't know what a file system is. So I suggest something like "Windows network settings" or "Windows connectivity settings". But I think it's also not very intuitive.

Cheers Tom

Anonymous said...

Hi, this is a good point, but when bad things happens there will be some log in when check what happen. For example, in your example, if the connection with the AP fail because some problem in the IP configure stage I want to know that! not only Connected fail! or something like that

Robert Knight said...

> but when bad things
> happens there will be some
> log in when check what happen.

Of course. In that case one typically-used option is to display a 'Technical details' label which when clicked on opens up a section with more technical information, including a link to a more detailed log if appropriate. KDE already has such a dialog.

Given that troubleshooting is usually done in forums or over IRC with the help of community members, some facility to share the details of a failure with people who have a deeper understanding would be handy as well.

Ian said...

>Configure -> Edit, Settings,

In that list, only edit is a verb. Settings or preferences can't be used as a replacement for configure.

I actually just looked it up the words in the OED. I always find it interesting that words which came over from the Norman invasion or otherwise have Romantic roots are still more seen as more formal, (its been like a thousand years, you'd think we'd get over it!)

And indeed, configure comes from Latin, where as "set" comes from stuff like Old High German and Old Frisian.

JSinger said...

I confess that when I maintained the Konsole documentation, I had no idea why the color setting was called "Schema". But there were many more pressing problems than that (the difference between "Console" and "Linux Console", for example) and I figured anyone who clicked on it would quickly realize what "black on yellow" meant.

Jason Stubbs said...

I'd like to throw in that "edit" is also a geeky word. From

1. to supervise or direct the preparation of (a newspaper, magazine, book, etc.); serve as editor of; direct the editorial policies of.
2. to collect, prepare, and arrange (materials) for publication.
3. to revise or correct, as a manuscript.
8. Computers. to modify or add to (data or text).

Looking at your patches, I'd suggest that using "change" instead of "edit" would be more natural.

chani said...

ian: yeah, they're not verbs, but maybe "configure foo" could be changed to "foo settings" or something... I dunno... then again, since the menu itself is called "settings", that could get really really repetitive :)

Diederik said...

It's great to see this kind of attention to details! :-)

Funny to mention, the Dutch translations use the phrase "{something} instellen...", which also looks much better.

The word 'instellen' means something like 'finetune', 'adjust', or 'calibrate'. In the Dutch Windows XP, settings are often called "Opties..." (Options...) btw.

I would love to see the ellipsis at the end of the menu items though to indicate it will open a new dialog (or did I miss some exception in the HIG?)

Robert Knight said...

> I would love to see the
> ellipsis at the end of the
> menu items though to indicate
> it will open a new dialog

As far as I am aware, any menu item which opens a dialog that requires input from the user should have an ellipsis at the end.

If there are menu items that should have an ellipsis, but don't, please help us by filing a bug report.

If there are a lot of missing ellipses then that might be a translation issue - in which case try changing the language temporarily and see if it makes a difference. I'd be surprised though given the healthy number of Dutch contributors KDE has.

Alan Horkan said...

The phrase "and/or" is overly technical jargon. In English 'or' means one or the other or both and although it may be pedantic of mee to point it out is pedantic and redundant to write "and/or". Also the slash also represents 'or' adding to the redundancy. That and writing TODO as a single word outside of code are probably two of the most common jargon mistakes programmers make in their writing.

You are unlikely to see it in a user interface, you might see it in documentation occasionally but while we were on the subject of good English now was as good a time as any to mention it.

Some day somehow I'll run GNU Style and Diction on the documentation to show just how poor the quality of English unfortunately is (yet so much better than Wikipedia will ever be without a built in spellchecker. It is an offense to the English language and worst engineering practice ever to fail to automate spell check).

If you talk to translators you can get a great insight into poor choices of English words. Acronyms are awful in any language, and I vaguely recall being told the Dutch translation of KDE had to use something alongh the lines of "URL Address" which goes to show the English should have been something like Address or Link or Shortcut or Bookmark. Acronyms are awful.

Great to see this kind of attention to detail. There may be a few trolls who complain about dumbing down but there is a right time and place for these kinds of details and most people don't need or want to know. Keep up the good work.

divide said...

I'd argue against throwing away „and/or” without good reason. It has the advantage of being very clear -- that „or” can mean any of those -- or both -- is exactly the reason why the „and/or” expression is useful.

It might be reduntant or pedantic, but sometimes it just replaces a lot of explaining. Also, I don't know about English, but it isn't perceived as technical in Polish language -- maybe sometimes overly formal, yes, but, as said before, sometimes it's better than the alternative or outright ambigousness.

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