Communicating Clearly About Computing

Those of use who work in IT are frequently called upon to explain our work to people who are less familiar with computers than we are. It should be our goal to speak and write as clearly as possible. To do that we must avoid jargon, slang and expressions which are easily misunderstood. We should not write to be understood. We should write so as not to be misunderstood.

Misunderstandings can arise in a number of ways. One is that our listeners and readers may be unfamiliar with the subject matter. They may be somewhat computer-literate, but that does not mean that they read the trade press. They may not know that a “service pack” is Microsoft’s term for a set of replacement programs which correct defects in Microsoft Windows. They likely know how to use e-mail and the World Wide Web but are often unaware that these services depend on numerous special computers called “servers”. Thus, if we tell them that “the e-mail server will be temporarily shut down for maintenance”, they may not know how that will effect them.

A second barrier to understanding what we say is that computing has its own jargon. Our jargon words can have a completely different meaning outside of computing. For example, we may use the word “system” to mean “a computer”. To an outsider though, the word “system” most likely means “a way of doing something” such as a filing system or “an organized group of objects working together” such as the Solar System. Even when our audience has some knowledge of the jargon, they may not immediately know when we have the jargon meaning in mind and when we intend the general meaning. For example, if we say that “we have a system for dealing with viruses” does that mean that we have establish procedures for dealing with them or that we have a computer system which automatically seeks them out and destroys them?

A third barrier to understanding is that the English language is constantly changing. Old words are used in new ways, especially in the spheres of business management, advertising, and among young people. These new ways of using words may violate previously accepted rules of grammar or give the words new meanings. For example, we might write “there are several issues to be resolved” meaning that there are technical problems to be solved. But in Standard English this would mean “there are several matters of dispute on which agreement has not yet been reached.”

In order to communicate clearly, you must consider who your audience is. Read through your work and ask yourself: Based on their background and knowledge, will they be able to correctly identify the meaning of each word the first time they read it, or will they have to read it several times each time understanding a little more? If the meaning of a term is not clear the first time through, you should replace it or add additional clarifying words.

The result may at first seem stilted and “uncool”. But, for your reader, it will be clear and understandable.

Words to be Used with Care

application
keep in mind that in most contexts the word “application” means “a formal request, particularly one made in writing”. For example: “John filled out a job application.” But in computing, “application” means a “program which directly applies computing technology to a real-world problem”. Word processors, web browsers, and e-mail are all applications. A program the purpose of which is to repair a computer or to perform some task necessary to its operation is not an application. Thus, it would be incorrect to refer to an “anti-virus application”.
compromise
as a noun this word means: “a settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions” or “a concession to something derogatory or prejudicial”. Thus we could say that “the two parties agreed on a compromise that, while not canceling computer upgrades, will delay them until after the end of the semester.” As a verb it means to “expose to discredit or harm”. It would be correct to say that failure to install patches “compromises security” or that recent mistakes have “compromised our reputation for dependability”. It would be incorrect to say “the new worm has led to an increase in compromises” when we mean that it “has led to an increase in security breaches”.
desktop
first and foremost this word means the upper surface of a table with a chair behind it. If you use it to mean the desktop on a computer screen, you should make that clear. Do not use the word “desktop” to mean “a desktop computer”. That would be too confusing.
icon
a religious image, typically painted on a small wooden panel. Make sure to establish that you are talking about a graphical user interface before using this word.
install
this word is a transitive verb which means it takes a direct object. It is not a noun, so we should not write “the computing center will be doing hundreds of installs during the summer break”. Instead we should say “the computing center will be installing hundreds of new computers during the summer break.” Since it is transitive would not write “Please wait while the program installs.” since one might reasonably ask “while it installs what?” Instead we should write “Please wait while the program is being installed.”
issue
this word means “that which comes out”, “the final solution to a problem”, or “a topic for dispute or discussion”. It does not mean a defect or problem, at least not until people begin arguing about it. Do not say “the upgraded software will be installed as soon as the remaining issues are resolved” since that could mean that we first have to settle arguments about it. Instead say “as soon as the remaining technical problems are solved”. Never use the phrase “undiscovered issues” since it is self-contradictory. Say “undiscovered defects”.
PC
this is a acronym for “personal computer”. It means any computer intended for use by one worker. Be aware that many people mistakenly believe that it means “an IBM PC compatible personal computer”. Rather than saying “Macs and PCs” say “Macintosh and Microsoft Windows computers”.
program
common meanings include “a brief, usually written, summary of the things to be presented and the people to participate”. It also means “a plan or system under which action is taken to reach a goal”. Be sure to establish proper context before using this word to mean “a set of coded instructions for a computer”.
system
keep in mind that this word means “a group of items which act as a whole” or “an organized way of doing things”. If you use it all by itself to mean a computer, you will confuse people. If you must use the word system, call it “a computer system”.
upgrade
be aware that this word can be ambiguous. To refer to “upgrading software” is probably ok. To say “the computers will be upgraded” when you mean that they will be replaced with newer ones is unnecessarily vague.
Windows
this term is often used as shorthand for Microsoft Windows. Generally, the terms Microsoft Windows and MS-Windows are preferable. At least the first reference in any document should use a more complete form of the term.
workstation
the primary word is “a place where a worker stands (or sits) while working”. In computing it means an unusually powerful computer or terminal which serves as the equipment for a single worker. When communicating with the public it is better to say “your computer” rather than “your workstation”.
english, writing style

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