Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Will Controlled English Take Over Technical Communication?

The Society for Technical Communication organizes regular web seminars (webinars) on a variety of communications-related topics. I attended last night's webinar on "Controlled Language", presented by language service provider TedoPres.  Controlled English -- also called Simplified English -- is used to standardize technical texts, as well as to make them more concise. It limits writers to a list of approved terms and imposes a set of grammar and style rules in addition to general English grammar. The vocabulary list and rules differ from company to company, so that there is no one single "Simplified English" standard. However, there are specifications, such as Simplified Technical English (used in the aerospace and defense industries), which can be adapted to a specific company's needs.

Using such controlled vocabulary and grammar ensures consistent use of terminology. It also guards against ambiguities and needlessly complex sentences. That, in turn, makes translation easier and more efficient. Consistent terminology allows me to use my translation memory tool more effectively. Clearer source text helps to avoid mistranslations due to erroneous interpretation of the original. The same is true of simpler sentence structures.

All this streamlining usually also reduces the amount of text to be translated. According to the webinar, use of controlled language reduces translation cost by 20-30%. However, too concise a text can become ambiguous when the intended audience is not considered. The presenter cited one example from an airport in Canada where the instructions included the phrase "clear runway". Everyone working there left the area in question, except for the snowplow driver, who entered the runway to clear away leftover snow.

In addition to reducing translation cost, controlled language also makes the text easier to understand for speakers of English as a second language. While writing in English for global audiences does not require the use of a specific controlled language, many of the rules for simplified English apply in this situation, as well.

So does the proliferation of English-language documents read by global audiences, as well as the drive to reduce the expenses associated with expanding a business internationally mean that in the future most technical text will be written in a controlled language? The trend seems to point in that direction, although marketing considerations probably pull the other way. I'll look at the relationship between technical information and marketing tactics in a future post.

PS: I am leaving for Austria this Friday, Feb. 10, for three weeks. I will try to post at least once during that time, but possibly not more often than that.


  1. Its a rewarding, well compensated career, ideal for team-oriented people with a linguistic knack, good communication skills, and a desire to contribute to the success of an organization.

  2. I am waiting for your next post as i am very desprate about the topic you are going to cover in your next post as the relationship between technical information and marketing tactics.

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