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Re: Use of the first person in messages from the computer

On Thu, Feb 09, 2012 at 12:20:06PM +0000, Ian Jackson wrote:
> I have just received a review by a l10n team of a package of mine.

Well, by Christian Perrier; nobody else has had a chance to reply yet.

If people with opinions on this topic want to join the d-l-e team,
which mostly seems to consist of me and Christian, please do!

> 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
> example:
>> - 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.)

(Side note: isn't that a Policy 10.7.4 "must not" violation anyway?)
> 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[1]
> howto guide's[2] 2nd and 3rd bullet points on the summary page are:
>    * Prefer active verbs

Often good advice.  Occasionally ignorant superstition.

>    * Use `you' and `we'
> Also relevant is their guide to (paper) forms[3], which contains this
> imprecation:
>    * 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.

Notice that Christian's text *does* use "you", and the Plain English
Campaign *doesn't* recommend "I".
> 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
> correct, above.

It could mean debconf, or xfonts-traditional, or Ian, or some upstream
author, or an animated paperclip; and there's nothing much in the
context to help readers sort this out.
> 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".

You probably think that because you're used to speaking as the author
of software.  But I'm pretty sure ordinary end users are *not*
thinking of you when they run apt-get, and you really can't expect
them to naturally interpret it your way.
> 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
> author.
> 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.
>> Unpersonnalize.
> 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
> Campaign.

We should make the English we use as simple as possible, but no
simpler.  The problem with questions like "do you wish to do this to
your computer" is that the reader may be reluctantly following site
policy on the company server; paring it down to a decision about what
"should" be done on "the" computer makes it more likely to be
appropriate.  Still, when this policy leads to unwieldy English I
usually argue for just using second person - I don't have any problem
with referring to the reader as "you".
JBR	with qualifications in linguistics, experience as a Debian
	sysadmin, and probably no clue about this particular package

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