A correspondent writes to ask for the background to an item he heard on a radio station recently about the language of instruction manuals. He evidently tuned in half way through and heard me going on about it, but wasn't clear why.
It was in relation to a survey carried out for a UK firm called The TechGuys, who make their living by helping people who have trouble understanding the instruction leaflet or manual that comes with newly purchased equipment. The survey showed that, nationally, 67% of people say they don't get the full use out of their technical devices because the manual is too difficult to understand. Over a third, 34%, avoid the manual altogether, preferring trial and error instead. A remarkable 20% admit to throwing the manual across the room. And an even more remarkable 8% have taken their frustration out on the piece of equipment they were trying to set up. This is 'read rage', indeed.
Manuals for mobile phones evidently top the list, closely followed by those for cameras, washing machines, TVs, PCs, and DVD players. But it isn't just the high-tech devices, as anyone knows who has bought a piece of self-assembly furniture.
Why are the manuals so hard to understand? A mixture of nonlinguistic and linguistic reasons. Under the nonlinguistic heading we find the trend for manufacturers to create a single manual for all international markets: there is a massive booklet, but we find that only a couple of pages are in English. Similarly, there is a trend to use one manual for many different models, which makes it difficult to find the information relating to the particular model we have bought. And some manuals are these days available only online, which can be a separate problem - especially if the item you've bought is a PC which you need to get online in the first place!
Related to this is the density of the presented text. Presumably to keep these manuals as compact as possible, type-size is often small, and the information is packed together on the page. Labels in diagrams are often so tiny that they are very difficult to read. Online versions can be just as bad, with dense paragraphs and poor page navigation.
The linguistic reasons fall into two types. First there is the fact that many products are now manufactured abroad, often in the far east, where the level of English can be poor. Many firms evidently do not bother to get their translations checked by a competent English speaker (not necessarily a native speaker - competence is the criterion). I am used to seeing jocular collections of 'fractured English' as books and websites, where the grammar is wrong but the meaning is usually obvious. Instruction manuals illustrate a rather more serious side to the phenomenon, where the poor language makes it difficult or impossible to understand what is meant.
Second, there is the actual choice of words and constructions. Many manufacturers assume that the user will know all the technical terms about their product, and do not bother to explain them. Some quite clearly have not had the product to hand when writing the manual, as the name of a feature in the manual does not correspond to the name of the feature on the machine.
Sentences can be long and complex. And the discourse structure is often badly thought through. Once I tried to put a kit together. Instruction 1 said: 'Glue A to B'. I did. Instruction 2 said 'Before you glue A to B, do X.' It proved impossible, now that A and B were joined.
It's the semantic inexplicitness which apparently people find especially annoying. Presumably it is just laziness on the part of the manual writers which led to one laptop manual saying: 'The appearance of your computer may be different from those illustrated in this manuel due to variations in specifications. It may also vary in some countries or areas'. And what does this instruction mean? 'Note: CD-R, DC-RW Discs recorded with writing device can only be used when they are correctly treated'. Is the device to be used only with CDs that have been handled with care? Or is it something to do with the way the CD is 'burned'? Or something else?
Some instructions are simply semantically puzzling. What were the writers getting at when their hairdryer manual said 'Do not blow-dry when sleeping'? Or culturally puzzling. I think the most fascinating example of inappropriate instructionese unearthed by The TechGuys was this heading, found in the manual from the Russian manufacturers of a fridge-freezer on sale in the UK: 'How to kill the animal and prepare the meat before storing in the freezer'. Perhaps somebody should have told them that Surbiton is not Siberia.