Use of the first person in messages from the computer
I have just received a review by a l10n team of a package of mine.
The reviewer seems to be under the impression that there is something
wrong with the computer speaking to the user in the first person. For
> - If you approve, I will edit /etc/X11/app-default/XTerm for you, and
> - save your old file as XTerm.backup.not-trad. (Note that this is a
> - conffile so you may get prompts from dpkg about it in the future.)
The suggested alternative from the reviewer:
> + If you choose this option, /etc/X11/app-default/XTerm will be modified
> + and the old file will be kept as XTerm.backup.not-trad. [...]
Good plain English style is to use the simplest constructions and
sentences that will serve, including avoiding needless use of the passive
voice. This is not just my opinion. The Plain English Campaign
howto guide's 2nd and 3rd bullet points on the summary page are:
* Prefer active verbs
* Use `you' and `we'
Also relevant is their guide to (paper) forms, which contains this
* Make it personal
Use `you' rather than, for instance, `the applicant' [etc.]
Use `we' rather than, for instance, `the council' [etc.]
I don't know where the English l10n team got the idea from that there
is something wrong with a computer speaking to the user in the first
person. But in my opinion this criticism is entirely misplaced.
I would suggest that, in general, "I" would refer to the computer (or
some part of it, as demanded by context). It should be used whenever
the meaning is clear. You can see an example which I think is
I think "we" would usually refer to the authors of the software.
Again, it should be used where appropriate. For example "we
recommend" is a lot better than "it is recommended".
That's not to say that every use of the first person is correct, of
course. It should always be clear who the putative speaker is. And I
think it is incorrect to use the first person singular when writing as
the software author, because Free Software is a collaborative
enterprise: the authors are always in principle collective and thus
plural even if in practice there is a principal or single human
My reviewer also seems to think there is (sometimes?) something wrong
with the use of the second person to refer to the user or the owner of
the system. For example:
> - Optionally, this package will edit your system configuration to make
> + Optionally, this package will edit the system's configuration to make
> the default fonts used by xterm refer to the traditional font.
Again, I think my version is clearer, and also adds (appropriately)
more emphasis to the fact that the configuration that is being edited
is system-wide. The advice to "unpersonnalize" (sic) is directly
contrary to what I think is very good advice from the Plain English
Finally, the reviewer revealed in the review that they're not a native
speaker of English. Is it normal for l10n reviews to be conducted by
non-native speakers of the target language ? Are we really so short
of native English speaking l10n reviewers ? If so I would be happy to
help (although you may find me too opinionated...)
PS I have not named the reviewer because I get the impression that the
matters I'm questioning are general practice in the English l10n team,
so I don't want to make any personal criticism of the reviewer.