On 14 September, the Utrecht SIG met online to talk about Simplified English. Recently, one of our group had been asked to edit some FAQs and operating instructions for a machine manufacturer’s website. Usually, this kind of editing would involve imposing Plain English, but this time the request included a reference to Simplified Technical English, so some research was required before setting out on this editing adventure.
What is Simplified Technical English?
Simplified Technical English (STE) is an international specification that can be applied when preparing technical documentation. It’s what’s known as a controlled language. The specification consists of writing rules for grammar and style and a dictionary with words which writers are allowed to use, including usage examples.
STE was developed primarily for use in the aerospace industry because of the risk to human lives if systems do not operate safely and correctly. The specification spans more than 400 pages and is intended to be used alongside other style guides and directives.
STE can also help with technical translation from English because its vocabulary, word meanings and sentence structure are controlled. So, in theory, texts written in STE should be easier to translate.
How does STE compare to Plain English?
Plain English and Simplified Technical English both aim to produce clear writing. STE is a rules-based specification for writing procedures and includes a dictionary of approved terms to reduce ambiguity.
Plain English, or any ‘plain’ language, is written with the reader in mind, is clear and concise and written in the right tone of voice for the intended audience. Plain language has been adopted by organisations and governments all around the globe.
Both STE and Plain English base their writing rules on the six rules George Orwell condensed into his guidance to writers. Many will agree these rules are just as valid today as when Orwell first published them in 1946.
i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
(From Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language.)
Plain language is used everywhere. Banks, insurance and drug companies, as well as government bodies promote the use of plain language. In some countries, legislation has even been introduced to ensure companies and government bodes communicate in plain language.
An example mentioned by a colleague during the meeting is the European Medicines Agency. The EMA has published a medical terms simplifier, a plain-language glossary of medical terms related to medicine use and its recommended simpler alternatives to more complex-sounding medical terms. You can download it here.
Lessons learned from this assignment
- It doesn’t matter whether we’re working for a client directly or through an agency; we should always take control of the time estimate and budget. It’s good practice to make time to look at all the materials and do a sample edit before agreeing the budget. In this case, referring to the STE documentation and sending queries to the client took a great deal of time.
- Consider the first language of the author as well as the intended audience when estimating the time to edit. Although this document came from a regular end client, it wasn’t their usual marketing-speak.
- Consider editing in a CAT tool. It’s easy after the event to say ‘it would have been quicker if …’. In this case it probably would have saved time and would have helped assure consistency if the work was done in a CAT tool. Here are just some of the obvious advantages:
- Search vs. filter: In Word, it’s easy enough to search for a word or phrase, but you have to scroll through the document to change each one. In many CAT tools you can filter on a word or phase, so you just see those sentences on your screen.
- Sort: in some CAT tools you can easily sort all the sentences so similar ones appear together, making it easier to apply the same edits.
- Terminology database: A CAT tool enables you to add specific terms and proper names to a glossary and easily check whether they are being used consistently.
Other useful tools
During the meeting we also looked at Hemingway Editor, a useful tool to help you know whether a text is easy to read and understand. Hemingway gives a readability score and changes the background colour of sentences in the text that may need attention. There’s a free and paid version.
Click here if you would like a copy of the Simplified Technical English specifications.