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Mastering Words

13 Feb 2013

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master.... that's all."

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them--particularly verbs, they're the proudest--adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs--however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That's what I say!"

I've been developing a lot of Microsoft training materials recently, and I keep coming back to the classic scenes in Alice and Wonderland and The Princess Bride. I've discovered the trick with solving questions with Microsoft's different applications is not assuming that the feature is called what I think it should be called. If you think it's a template, it's really stationery. If you think it's user permissions, it's really group objects. I really hit the wall working on Active Directory certification materials. Suddenly I realized that server roles were not what I thought they were, and neither were domains. What the heck?

Any profession has its jargon and fixes specific meanings to certain words or phrases; that's inevitable. But there is something subtly different, and insidious about Microsoft's use, perhaps because they pick the most difficult use of any given word. I can live with the frustration I experience trying to use the keyword search help for any Microsoft product, but it's a particular bee in my bonnet that words should be used the way they are supposed to be used.

I have always been captivated by how the solution to Maxwell's Demon (who uses information to power a perpetual motion machine) was to assign a certain amount of work (in a physical sense) to each little particle of information. Of course, breaking information down into bits was what led to computing, but it's also useful as a metaphor for a system. When exchanging information becomes more work, the system runs out of steam faster. In broad ways, you can see this in societies filled with political double talk and euphemisms, like Rome under Tiberius, the Soviet Union under Stalin, or certain recent national spectacles (freedom fries, anyone?).

Whether it's a metaphor or a theory, informational entropy can be tricky to pin down when it comes to specifics. Any content developer is all too familiar with its effects. tl;dr is the new "whatever," when a big chunk of text is too forbidding to even tackle. Clarity, brevity, and above all, using words the way they are commonly understood are key to engaging your audience, whether they're your users, your visitors or your customers.

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