Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Software Development and the English Language

My eleven-year-old son has started programming. An avid user, gamer and PowerPoint wiz for years now, he's been increasingly curious about "how computers work". After looking at a few programming environments for beginners we've found that Microsoft's Small Basic is an excellent introduction for the budding computer scientist.  For each small step he takes there's the reward of being able to program something interesting and most of the time he can make progress by himself.

Like most beginners, the first lesson he learned was that computers demand very precise instructions. The programmer must be clear about what he wants to achieve and express it precisely, so that the computer "understands". Computers are particularly fussy but any sort of writing can benefit from the same advice: be clear about what you want to say and then express it precisely.

I thought of this yesterday while reading through "Quality System" documentation. Now I'm not the greatest fan of documented quality systems, to put it politely; instead I try to live every day of my professional life according to the agile manifesto, valuing working software over documentation and processes. But sometimes I have to explain our work methods to customers and partners and it helps to have some high-level documentation. Unfortunately, in my experience, most quality documents are poorly written: they use a special insiders' language with terms I find vague like "quality policy", "quality assurance", "change management", "traceability" and on and on. In short, they would be a lot more useful if the writer was clear about what he wanted to say, why he wanted to say it, and then expressed it precisely.

George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" is wonderfully clear and precise in describing the verbosity of politicians and how it might be corrected. As an essay it gives a great example to follow and its recommendations are valuable for any kind of technical writing. It concludes as follows:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This is another manifesto I try to follow every day of my professional life. You can tell from this blog how well or how badly I'm doing.


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