news & views > Mastering Words

InigoMontoya.jpg

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.

« »


Wicked Taos World Tour 2014

 


Roadside Dinosaurs

 


SpamLit and Spoetry

 


The Gentle Art of Defamatory Epithets

 


Mastering Words

 


Writing that Lasts

 


Improve Management of Albuquerque's Backyard

 


Throw the Bums Out

 


Should I Post This Image?

 


Laura Paskus, star reporter

 


Speak up- Ken Salazar is Listening!

 


Great Gifts for Public Lands Lovers!

 


New Public Lands!!

 


Party Like it's 1999 (if you support S22)

 


Militant Grammarians Strike the Grand Canyon

 


So Green It Hurts

 


Hooray! Sustainable Foods on the Table at National Parks

 


Tread Lightly? On What Planet?

 


75 reasons to vote November 7

 


Look, but don't touch!

 


Gale Norton In Pants

 


Good News! Two new wilderness areas!

 


Grist for your mill

 


Al Gore gets all het up

 


Some Good News

 


Law Allows Seismic Exploration in National Park

 


Secret Service Protects Nesting Duck

 


Extreme Hunter in Charge of Birdies, Bunnies

 


New Forest Rules Issued Dec 23, 2004

 


Creepy Things in the Appropriations Act

 


Kokopelli Uncut

 


Bears Can't Vote

 


Antelope & Mexicans Suffer for Immigration Policies

 


More Killer Vacations: Southern California

 


My Land's Not for Sale

 


Hard Times at the Duck Factory

 


Bear Lake Monster Rises Again

 


Interior Refuses FOIA Request

 


Room for All of God's Creatures

 


Mother Nature Responds to Bush Environmental Policies

 


Mired in the Gyre

 


Getting Hotter & Harder to Breathe

 


Killer Vacations

 


Creationism in the National Parks

 


Giant Space Shield to Save the Planet

 


Where Would Jesus Camp?

 


Privatization of Public Lands

 


Margaret Murie 1902-2003

 


Seizing Private Land for OHV Access

 


Cowfree 21st Century

 


It's a Trip!

 


War on Terror in Bridger-Teton National Forest

 


Public Lands, Disney Style