May 282016
This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series 2015-16 Program Chronicles

How many words do we need to use in our work? As it turns out, just 889, according to John Smart of Smart Communications, Inc. Smart described Simplified Technical English to the New England Chapter at the Waltham Public Library on the evening of May 11th.

Simplified Technical English, also known as STE, is “a controlled language to help users of English-language maintenance documentation understand what they are reading,” according to the Brussels, Belgium-based authors of the standard ASD-STE100.

In his presentation, Smart noted that there are over 1 million words in the English language, and we use, on average, 1,500 every day. STE is used to reach out to non-native speakers by reducing the number of usable words to 889, which includes 210 verbs.

Reducing vocabulary helps reduce the cost of localizing documents; there are words that don’t have an equivalent in English, but there are other words available in STE to stand in for them, giving meaning to instructions. This sounds like a great idea to make documentation accessible to other audiences, but STE has its detractors.

According to Smart, skeptics say that STE is “too simple, too technical. It has a wooden style, it takes longer to write.” That is all false, he says. STE simplifies documentation and saves time and money and, as Smart noted, “less is best!”

Governments are seeing the benefits of STE and taking action. In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law, which requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” In Canada, the government offers a database of appropriate terminology to use across multiple languages.

STE can also save lives. Smart showed an example of a Flight Interactive Electronic Technical Manual for an Airbus A380, and an example of a simplified explanation for a medical instrument. All the instructions were presented in easy-to-understand terms, and there was no ambiguity in what they were trying to convey to readers.

John Smart chats with Patty Gale after his presentation

Smart concluded his presentation by showing features of the MAXit Checker, a FrameMaker plugin his company offers that contains an STE dictionary. It searches an entire document and suggests replacements for terminology that might not translate from English to another language during review.

About the Author

Photo of Paul Duarte

Paul Duarte

Paul A. Duarte holds an MA in Professional Writing from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Paul is Vice President of the New England Chapter.

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