In the world of product documentation for global markets, the nuances and idiosyncrasies of English as a living language and the inherent potential for miscommunication pose a great challenge to technical communicators. With the great variety of dialects and pidgin English emerging throughout the world, perhaps it's time to revisit International English—at least in the context of technical communication.
The Association of European Airlines (AEA) and the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA) undertook one of the earliest efforts to evaluate the readability of maintenance documentation in the civilian aircraft industry. The assessment teams reviewed the instructional content in maintenance manuals. The product of this effort in the late 1970s was the AECMA Simplified English Guide.
SIMPLIFIED TECHNICAL ENGLISH
Technical communicators are ideally positioned to make the case for standardized English for Technical Communication. This has already been achieved, albeit on a smaller scale, in the aerospace industry with Simplified Technical English (STE).
Technical writers, editors, and general content creators are always looking for the holy grail: high-quality content that is understandable, findable, and what our audience actually wants to read. Of course, you also want to create that content quickly and cheaply. That's a given, right?
STE has a very good purpose and works when used properly. Most documentation organizations use STE when they want to achieve several major things: consistency, improved translation processes, reduced localization costs, and limited word use. STE is based on fundamental technical communication goals. However, to implement STE so it reads well, writers and editors need to be trained well to write to conform to STE.
STE ties into those fundamental goals of good technical communication: simple, concise, understandable, and readable content. To some extent, many of the core STE guidelines that we all want in content are also already in department style guides. The challenge is actually adhering to and enforcing those goals across enterprise-level content. You need a tool to help all of those writers and editors achieve your content goals in a scalable, manageable, and consistent way.
Some document departments also set up a "simplified” dictionary to accompany the style guide for the organization, assuming the fundamental technical communicators cache of words and including the industry-specific definitions which are clearly defined for the company. STE must also take into account the differences in definitions for commonly used words or processes for the different industries.
Additionally, STE must apply to different styles of writing depending on whether you are writing a technical specification, a simple user manual, or an industry standard. The style of writing and vocabulary used is very different for all of these. The first uses direct and technical language. The second uses simple and direct language. The third uses a language verging on the legal.
STE prescribes the use of grammar rules that are relatively more restrictive than the standard rules of the English language.
The general vocabulary has only 900 approved words while explicitly listing 1500 other non-approved words with alternative suggestions. By introducing these grammar and vocabulary restrictions, technical authors can avoid writing overly long sentences and leave out unnecessary technical details where applicable, all of which are obstacles to the ease of readability.
AMERICAN ENGLISH VS BRITISH ENGLISH
Finally, whether to adopt American or British English is a common courtesy to reflect the country of origin of the product. For very large companies translating to different languages, adaptions may also be made in the English. However, for these companies a style guide can define the specific words to be used.
English technical communicators tend to use different grammatical constructions than trained American writers. Because those constructions can make the content unclear, any type of standardization can be extremely helpful. Although spelling differences are not a huge problem, they can be distracting to a reader to find both in any one section of a document.
THE CASE FOR STANDARDIZATION
STE is an international aerospace standard that helps to make technical documentation easy to understand. It was designed with non-native speakers of the English language in mind. However, the benefits of STE have proven very highly applicable to all industries. That is why 60% of STE users today come from industries outside of aerospace and defense.
For many years now, the use of STE as a controlled language authoring strategy has successfully taken off not just at large organizations, but also in small and medium enterprises. The endeavor into a more controlled language by providing technical writers with a common set of standardized writing rules and general vocabulary enables teams of writers to write technical manuals that are consistently accurate and require less proofreading and editing effort. Ambiguous or inconsistently worded documentation can result in non-compliant data deliveries, poor customer support, potential legal liabilities, equipment damage, as well as safety risks.
For more information, visit The official home of ASD Simplified Technical English, ASD-STE100 (STE).