Shibboleths of Technical Communication

A shibboleth is a test which separates friends from enemies, insiders from outsiders, the trustworthy from the suspect.

In medieval England, it was easy to tell the nobility from the peasantry: the nobility spoke French; the peasantry spoke English. This is why our words for meat on the hoof are Anglo-Saxon in origin (cow, sheep, pig) while our words for meat on the plate are French in origin (beef, mutton, pork). A peasant might steal a noble’s horse and cloak, but he could not pass himself off as a nobleman because he could not steal a noble’s tongue. read more

Book Review: Back of the Napkin

I tend to have a reputation for being anti-graphics in technical communication. I’m not. I think graphics can be very powerful, if used appropriately. But I also think that graphics are very often used badly, and that a bad graphic is even worse than bad text.

The problem, it seems to me, is that graphics have no inherent grammar. Unless a paragraph is truly butchered, you can usually puzzle out its meaning, because a language has only one grammar, one way of putting words together to make meaning. But what is the consistent and agreed meaning of a thick arrow versus a thin, a circle next to a triangle, or a broken line versus a solid one? When a graphic fails, therefore, it fails utterly. read more