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Microsoft - control language

Getting English under control

Any large organization or bureaucracy is likely to have a style guide for its internal documents, publications, and web presence. Such guides tell which logos to use, what to capitalize, whether to use spaces in certain compounds and periods in abbreviations, when to spell out numbers, and so on. Some organizations go a step further and develop what is known as a control (or sometimes controlled) language: a prescribed, simplified vocabulary and grammar for use in official documents. A control language aims to make technical English (or another language) consistent and easily understood. The idea is to rein in variation to limit what can go wrong.

I was browsing through the 2014 Microsoft Manual of Style, which is a hybrid: part style guide and part control language manual. In a long-ago blog post, the linguist Arnold Zwicky pointed out a bit of clumsy advice about the word once from a 1995 edition of the Microsoft Manual: “To avoid ambiguity, do not use [once] as a synonym for after.” Microsoft’s editors illustrated this with the usage labels Correct and Incorrect:

Correct

After you save the document, you can quit the program.

Incorrect

Once you save the document, you can quit the program.

Microsoft must have gotten some correction itself, because by the 2012 fourth edition, the intent was clarified and the usage labels made more specific: 

To avoid ambiguity, especially for an international audience, do not use [once] as a synonym for after.

Microsoft Style

After you save the document, you can quit the program.

Not Microsoft Style

Once you save the document, you can quit the program.

In ordinary English, once can mean after. Microsoft’s worry seems to be that the meaning might be confused with the once-upon-a-time meaning or the a-single-time meaning. The point was not a matter of grammatical correctness, which is a fraught notion in any case. Rather it was intended to facilitate translation and understanding of technical materials.

Companies often develop their own control languages, like Caterpillar Technical English, General Motors Global English, or Boeing Technical English. You can find a fairly comprehensive list in Tobias Kuhn’s “A Survey and Classification of Controlled Natural Languages,” which appeared in the journal Computational Linguistics in 2014. Comprehensibility across cultures and languages is also the idea behind Aviation English and Seaspeak, and these might be considered control languages as well.  

Guides like the Microsoft Manual, the Apple Style Guide, and the IBM Style Guide define a style somewhere between plain language and simplified arbitrariness. Sometimes the advice seems to come from past experience: 

discreet vs. discrete Be sure to use these words correctly. Discreet means “showing good judgement” or “modest.” Discrete means “separate” or distinct” and is more likely to appear in technical content.

Sometimes the advice is idiosyncratic:

ad hoc Do not use ad hoc unless you have no other choice. 

Sometimes the advice sacrifices common usage in favor of minimalism:

while Use only to refer to something occurring in time. Do not use as a synonym for although or whereas.

choose Use choose when the user must make a decision, as opposed to selecting (not picking) an item from a list to carry out a decision already made. 

Sometime the advice is diplomatic:

collaborate, collaboration, collaborator It is all right to use collaborate or collaboration to refer to two or more people who are working on a shared document. However, do not use collaborator to describe a worker in such an environment unless you have no other choice. Collaborator is a sensitive term in some countries. Therefore, use a synonym such as colleague or coworker instead. 

And sometimes the advice is even ironic:

bluescreen Do not use blue screen or bluescreen, either as a noun or as a verb, to refer to an operating system that is not responding. As a verb use stop instead. And as a noun, use stop error

malicious code: Do not use. See malware, malicious software, security.

The next time you run across a corporate style guide, take some time to browse for bits of control language. It will give you a new perspective on style. 

Feature image: “Building 92 at Microsoft Corporation headquarters in Redmond, Washington” by Coolcaesar. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Marsha Mercer

    Another pair to keep under control — rein and reign. See last sentence of first paragraph. Oooops.

  2. Paul Twyman

    A respectful correction to your text…https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/do-you-rein-in-or-reign-in-something

  3. John

    “Past experience” you say? A bit redundant.

  4. Michael Lamb

    These so-called authorities have not stopped you using “reign in” inappropriately in this piece!

  5. Michael Lamb

    I should have noted that “reign in” is an increasingly widespread misuse for the equestrian metaphor that is appropriate here, but sanity must take precedence over descriptivism

  6. Lea Galanter

    I’m curious why the 2014 version of the Microsoft Manual of Style is cited when the Microsoft Writing Guide is available online and is updated on a regular basis. It makes it sound like Microsoft style is outdated when it’s not. (I’ve been using Microsoft style since the early 1990s.)

  7. OUPblog team

    Thank you Paul, Marsha, and Michael for flagging the rein/reign error. Now corrected! Kind regards, the OUPblog team.

  8. Edwin Battistella

    Thanks for catching and correcting the “reign in” 😊

  9. Dave

    Grammar seems to be turning into a lost art across the board! It’s good to see that someone is still paying attention!

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