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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.
> 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.)
> 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
>    * 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.]

Yes, but these are about councils and persons, if I understand
correctly; not about computers.

> 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 believe this stems from a feeling that having the computer speak in
first-person form implies some form of (artificial?) sentience on the
part of the computer. A computer is an inanimate object that just
happens to have the capability to make calculations and interact with
humans. Would you refer to a table as a person?

A computer cannot refer to itself, because it does not have a self.
Whenever I see a first-person statement on the part of the computer, I
don't actually read it as coming from the computer; instead, I read it
as coming from the programmer who wrote the actual statement--a person.
Having a first-person form coming from a programmer is somewhat awkward;
as you say:

> [...] 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.

and therefore I think the reviewer is correct and the first-person form
should indeed not be used.

> 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,

But possibly wrong. The person configuring the system need not
necessarily be the owner of the system. I believe 'this system' rather
than 'the system' would be better, but that's a bit nitpicking. At any
rate, 'your system' implies ownership, which may not be in line with

The volume of a pizza of thickness a and radius z can be described by
the following formula:

pi zz a

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