We’ll Have to Abandon “Contemporary”

You’re reading an article about Chiang Kai-shek in Wikipedia, and you come to this subhead:

Contemporary public perception

What does it mean?

To an old-school scholar, “contemporary” always carries the meaning of “existing at the same time.” Chiang was contemporary with Mao, with Eisenhower, and so on.

To many casual readers, “contemporary” means “in the current moment.” And that’s what it means here: this section of the article is talking about what people think of Chiang now, not what they thought of him in his own time.

Thus the word “contemporary” no longer conveys an unambiguous meaning. Just by reading that subhead, we can’t tell whether that section of the article is going to talk about the public perception of Chiang in his lifetime or the public perception of him right now.

When a word no longer does its job, we have to give it up, however reluctantly. We should reword that subhead this way:

Public perception today

On the other hand, if we wanted to write about how people saw Chiang when he was alive, we could say this:

How Chiang was perceived in his lifetime

There are certain limited uses of “contemporary” that we probably don’t have to abandon. People will still understand “contemporaries” as a plural noun in the right context: “Chiang and his contemporaries.” Art critics may be able to talk about “contemporary art,” as long as they understand each other. (The Editor takes it as given that art critics do not write to be understood by the general public.) “Contemporary” may still mean something in real estate or furniture; the Editor suspects it means “a style that was popular in the 1960s.” As a general term, however, “contemporary” is broken, and we have to throw it away.

Use Words Because They Mean Something

Here is a sentence that starts out to say one thing and ends up saying something completely different:


If you’re using the hold-open latch, you can’t just wander away. That’s what we want to say here.

“Persons using dispensers with hold-open latches must remain at the refueling point during refueling” says it.

So what is “It is unlawful for” doing at the beginning of the sentence? It would be possible to begin the sentence that way, but the rest of the sentence would have to tell us what is unlawful, not what we must do: “It is unlawful for persons using dispensers with hold-open latches to leave the refueling point during refueling” would do it.

The Editor suspects that, for many people, phrases like “it is unlawful” do not mean the sum of their words. Instead, they are symbols that establish a mood. Here, what the writer was thinking was “Warning.” He might just as easily have used an upraised-hand icon or an exclamation point in a triangle, but he didn’t have those on his keyboard, so he typed “IT IS UNLAWFUL FOR” to add a certain atmosphere of warninginess at the beginning. (The Editor might have believed it was a simple mistake, except that this warning was laboriously cut out, laminated, and stuck on every pump in a large gas station near an Interstate exit. There were many opportunities to notice a typing mistake.)

Words do have meanings, and the best way to avoid misleading your readers is to be aware of the meaning of every word you write. Never accept set phrases as set.

By the way, give credit to the writer for the apology. The rule is there for a reason, but it is always good to apologize when you find yourself forced to tell people they can’t do something.

How to Recognize Absolutely Useless Information

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your car battery died. And let’s say that your car has a navigation system that requires a four-digit “Radio/Navigation Code” to reactivate it if it loses power. And let’s say you can’t find the card with the code on it. What do you do?

Not to worry! The manufacturer keeps a Web site where you can retrieve the code. All you need is your vehicle identification number and the serial number of the navigation system.

How do you find the serial number? Oh, wait—there’s a help page.

Serial Number Retrieval Help

There are several places to find your device’s serial number:

The Radio/Navigation Code and the device unit’s serial number are listed on the anti-theft ID card that comes with the vehicle. The card is usually placed in the glove box at the time of delivery.

And that’s all it says. “There are several places,” but it tells me only one place.

That’s limited information, and the way the laws of the universe are currently constituted, it will never be useful to a single sentient being. Ever. No one who has the “anti-theft ID card” with the Radio/Navigation Code on it is ever going to be on this site trying to find the serial number so as to be able to retrieve the Radio/Navigation Code. This entire page is useless information.

How would you have recognized that if you were the writer?

First, the word “several” should have set an automatic flag in your head. You should not be satisfied until you have listed the several ways, or until you have got somebody in the technical department to admit that there’s really only one way. Either the word “several” has to go, or there have to be several ways.

Second, and this is the most important rule in any technical writing, put yourself in the place of the reader. Such a simple rule, but unfortunately it’s a vague one. You have to try to imagine what the reader is doing. In this case, the reader is trying to retrieve the Radio/Navigation Code, right? Therefore, the reader does not have the card with the Radio/Navigation Code on it. You cannot, therefore, assume that the reader will be able to retrieve some other information from the same card.

If you can explain to yourself what problem the reader is trying to solve, you will almost certainly write usable instructions. (The reader is always trying to solve some problem, unless the reader is reading instruction manuals for fun.) If you do not know what problem the reader is trying to solve, then that is the problem you have to solve before you can write anything.


“Because of,” “The Cause of”

From the mobile Web site of a certain electric company:

Report an outage

Keep in mind, your outage could be the cause of a breaker or fuse problem. If you have checked your breaker or fuse box, please continue.

The writer clearly meant “your outage could be because of a breaker or fuse problem.”

“Because of” and “the cause of” are more or less opposite in meaning.

“Your outage is the cause of a breaker or fuse problem” means that the power went out, and that made a breaker or fuse problem happen.

“Your outage is because of a breaker or fuse problem” means that you had a breaker or fuse problem, and that made the power go out.

In technical writing, very little things have big consequences. If your writing makes the reader think the opposite of what you actually mean, you have at the very least failed to communicate. But at worst you may have cost yourself or the company you work for a lot of money—in unnecessary support calls, in returned merchandise, or even in lawsuits.

Acronym or Not? Sometimes a Word is Just a Word

We have surrounded ourselves with three-letter acronyms—words made out of the initials of some three-word expression. RAM is random-access memory. CAD is computer-aided design. In American English, we usually set these acronyms in capitals to make it clear that they stand for longer expressions.

But not every little word with only three letters is an acronym. Sometimes it’s just a word. From a review of a digital camera:

Shutter Release LAG is the amount of time it takes to take the shot after autofocus.

“Lag” is not an acronym—it isn’t made up from the initials of anything. It’s just a word meaning “slowness” or “delay.”

English is full of these little three-letter words—cap, box, bit—and there’s a strong tendency, especially in technical text that’s already pockmarked with abbreviations, for writers to set them in capitals as if they were acronyms.

The cure for this tendency is to insist on knowing the meaning of every acronym you write. That will have the added advantage of making your writing clearer in other ways as well. If you don’t know what an acronym means, you really shouldn’t be writing about it as if you understood it, and you’re going to trip yourself—or your readers—eventually.

Whether, If

A reader named Ruth writes:

This seems an opportune place to ask about a small issue that has been bothering me. I have always believed that when one uses the word “whether”, at least two options are going to follow. [“...whether sane or deranged”] and that if only one question was being posed, the correct word would be “if” [...“if sane”].

I encounter what I consider to be misuse of these words so regularly that I have begun to wonder how I got this notion in the first place. I would love to read some opinions (or categorical avowals) on the subject.

This is an interesting question, because “whether” certainly does imply the question “Which of the two?” Samuel Johnson describes “whether” as “a particle expressing one part of a disjunctive question in opposition to the other: answered by or.

However, it is often used, and the Editor thinks quite correctly, with only one side of the question stated:

A Discourse of Things Above Reason: Inquiring Whether a Philosopher Should Admit There Are Any Such. (The title of a treatise published in 1681.)

In this case, the alternative “or not” is implied. There are still two alternatives, but only one needs to be stated. We could multiply examples, but one more will suffice:

The question then is, whether a Roman Catholic priest shall be compelled to disclose what he has received in confession, in violation of his conscience, of his clerical engagements, and of the canons of his church, and with a certainty of being stripped of his sacred functions and cut off from religious communion and social intercourse with the denomination to which he belongs.

Again, the implied alternative is “or not.”

So this much simpler sentence is perfectly correct:

I don’t know whether I’ll be there tonight.

And so is this one, which means the same thing:

I don’t know if I’ll be there tonight.

In some older references, whether is preferred in that situation.

Whether and if are not always interchangeable. Note the difference in meaning when two alternatives are expressed:

I don’t know whether I’ll be there tonight or tomorrow.

This means that I’ll be there either tonight or tomorrow—I don’t know which one yet.

I don’t know if I’ll be there tonight or tomorrow.

This means that I may be there tonight or tomorrow, or I may not be there at all.

To go back to the reader’s example, then, these are both correct:

I don’t know whether Letitia is sane.

I don’t know if Letitia is sane.

Note that, like its cousin either, whether can refer to more than two things:

I don’t know whether to pick Tom, Dick, or Hasdrubal.

Either and whether are always slightly uncomfortable in that role, because etymologically they imply a choice of two. But English does not provide us with a suitable particle for choices of three or more.