As I cried into my beer recently about the passing of Google Reader, I thought about what I’m going to miss most.
(Quick initiation for those who don’t know: Google Reader was an RSS feed reader; it pulled only the content of articles from chosen websites – i.e. just the text and media – and displayed it all handily in one place.)
It’s not just that ‘All my stuff is there’, as Dr Colossus complained in The Simpsons when he got banned from Death Mountain. RSS feeds can be exported. Indeed mine are now sitting pretty in The Old Reader.
No, what I loved about Google Reader is that you could see everything.
You could look at the headlines from a particular blog, the most recent at the top, scroll down to older ones, and just keep scrolling. Back, back, back through the glorious archive of content.
I used Google Reader to keep an eye on clients’ publishing streams – for a final stage of checking and an editorial view of the output. I used it to read and research material for my own work. I used it to monitor interaction on my websites – from Flickr activity to blog comments.
I also used it for entertainment, poring over updates from my favourite sites. I used it to find something for dinner, quickly searching a whole folder of recipe feeds. I used it to follow friends’ latest blog posts, from the occasional Blogger update to daily photo journals from abroad.
In short, I used it to not miss anything.
Reader presented you with the whole feed. From the latest posts at the top, you could scroll down to the very beginning of the feed if you wanted to.
The Old Reader, while brilliant in many ways, says this after a certain number of posts:
Noooo! What if I haven’t? Or what if I have read them, but want to read them again? What if I don’t want to read them again, but I do want to skim the headlines for a quick bit of content analysis for a client? What if I want a chorizo recipe that didn’t come out last week (given that those from 2008 are equally relevant)? What if I want to quickly check how often I blog about user experience from my headlines over the last year?
In those cases, seeing the whole of something – or to know that I can if I wish to – is essential.
And it applies to other products too.
I love books, although I don’t have a book fetish like Jonathan Franzen. The contents of a book are more important than its form; digital formats for writing are essential, and exciting, for the future of publishing, reading and sharing of ideas.
Yet there is one advantage that a printed book, or newspaper, or magazine, has over any electronic version. It is far easier to appreciate the whole of the work when it is in physical form. By holding it in your hand, feeling its weight, looking at the edge of the pages or flicking quickly through the newsprint, you receive a sense of the entire work that browsing on a screen can never give you.
Is that important?
With a book, I get to trust my own hands and eyes about how long it will take to read, based on how thick the sliver of pages is, bunched together in my right hand. In fact my son shows me how much Harry Potter he’s read by the inches on the side.
With a book I can scan the text, really quickly. For all sorts of reasons. The same goes for physical newspapers and magazines.
In fact with newspapers I can set a course through the pages that heads for my favourite sections and features but is entirely open to being diverted. On a lazy weekend, I might derive satisfaction from feeling as though I looked through the complete paper.
It has something to do with trust; in particular trusting that I have been offered complete work to navigate through as I wish. With RSS readers as with books and magazines, I want to trust that nothing is being hidden.
I would hate to see only some of the bike lights on Amazon, or be offered only half of the clothes in a catalogue.
Starting with everything is a key principle for many of the websites we design at Fluent, from ecommerce to property search. You want to know that all the available products or houses are being shown to you, and search, filter or browse from there.
It’s a question of trust that you’re not missing a better deal or more suitable match. That you are being offered the same as everybody else, and don’t need to take special measures to keep the service equal and fair.
It’s also about an emotional connection, feeling that you’re not being left out or hoodwinked, feeling that the whole is there if you want it, like a collector who hunts down the complete set.
Gmail do it – you can organise your email however you like but there is comfort in knowing that once you click ‘All Mail’ you can access the whole ridiculous pile.
I’m absolutely sure that others will not feel the same way, that, in some contexts at least, they will prefer things of interest to whizz by, happy with only the leading articles, the bestselling products, the blogs recommended by friends, the page by page navigation of an e-reader.
But for some reason I need to know, to see, to feel, that the whole is there if I want it. To do the equivalent of weighing a book in my hand and running my thumb across its edges. To conceive the beginning and the end of a thing. To see history as well as the present.
Nothing should be hidden.
Having already seen how an apron, an auger, an adder and an umpire used to be a napron, a nauger, a naddre and a noumpere, here are some more words that have been oddly divided on their way into the dictionary.
Old English efeta is the word that gave us the great Scrabble move ‘eft’ – a newt at a juvenile stage. But it also, by mistake, gave us newt itself. Efeta led to ewt, and ‘an ewt’ became ‘a newt’ by misdivision.
There are far more of these wrong factorisations in English than I first realised. The Old English word eke meant ‘also’. People who had an additional name were said to have eke-names. But those boasting of ‘an eke-name’ were soon thought to have said ‘a neke-name’, and eventually nickname became the norm.
Misdivisions do not only occur between ‘a’ and ‘an’. Nuncle has been used for uncle in the past, based on ‘mine uncle’ sounding like ‘my nuncle’. Similarly the names Ned and Nellie may have come from mistaken hearings of ‘mine Ed’ and ‘mine Ellie’.
This confusion occurs regularly when words are brought in from other languages. When we started to cook the French egg dish la lemelle in the 17th century we thought they were saying l’alemelle which became Anglicised as an omelette (instead of ‘a melette’ I guess). ‘The lizard’ in Spanish is el lagarto, and if you roll the el in with the name you get alligator.
This refactoring can happen within a word itself. If you invented a great sausage in Frankfurt that became internationally prized it might be called a Frankfurter. When Americans popularised a hot meat sandwich derived from a German style of cooking beef, it was marketed as a Hamburger (‘dish from Hamburg’).
Because ham is a foodstuff, and not a million miles away from beef, the name began to be thought of as a ham-burger (as a kid I assumed that the first ones must have been made with ham). This mistake led to the naming of the beef itself as a burger. Burger originally meant a town resident – now in English it’s any hunk of meat in a bun.
Sometimes words just get shortened. We got the word anime from the Japanese, and it sounds suitably exotic. But we didn’t import the whole word, pronounced anime-shon, which you guessed it, was simply the Japanese version of the English animation. It’s a real life example of a word being passed through translate and back again.
Unstressed vowels often get lost over the decades. Cute, mend, squire and scapegoat started out as acute, amend, esquire and escape goat. Gypsy is a modern version of Gyptian, which came about when no one could be bothered to pronounce the start of Egyptian any more. These are more lazy than mistaken. But another example does contain an error. The word ‘alone’ came from all + one. It is thought that people refactored it as a + lone, thinking therefore that lone must be a word in its own right.
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With most of these words I’m simply enjoying their irregular routes into the dictionary. Some have charmed their way in, others got misheard, all have been misunderstood along the way.
Back formations are new words formed from existing ones based on conventional patterns. For example, burgle came from burglar, as though it were really burgler.
A similar misunderstanding took place with baby pigs. Piglets suck from their mother, leading to the name suck-lings (literally ‘little suckers’). Because the word suckling sounds like a present participle (such as chuckling) it was assumed that the tiny pigs’ action was to suckle.
This is so delightful that I don’t think we should stop there – walking like a duckling should definitely be to duckle.
The last syllable of practitioner is completely unnecessary. The French called someone who practised a profession a practicien, which came into English as practician. This seems a perfectly reasonable word, but somehow it got updated into practitian – which suggested to some people that such a thing as ‘practition’ exists. If that’s the case, they thought, then people who practice ‘practition’ must be practitioners. A more logical route would have been practisers, but what has logic got to do with it?
Remember when a pea was called a pease? There was even a song about it. But pease sounded like a plural (despite the real plural peasen) and got shortened to pea. Similarly, when a person had sufficient estate to allow discharge of his will, it was said that he had assets, meaning ‘enough’, from the Old French asez. Assets, like enough, was singular, but in time was heard as plural, and the single form asset was born.
One of my favourite mix-ups with words happened in the Middle Ages. I like to think it happened in the kitchen, probably whilst making pease pudding. Cooks used to mixt ingredients together. But because that sounded like the past tense, mix was coined as the present form. A bit mixt up, but you can see how it happened.
The verb lever spawned a noun, leverage. Leverage is the thing that you gain when you have levered something. The suffix -age shows clearly that it’s a noun. Taking that very noun-y noun and using it as a verb – to leverage – is pretty dumb. Especially when all it becomes is an insipid synonym for the already bland ‘use’.
With a nadder being mistaken for ‘an adder’ and a napron misheard as ‘an apron’, the confused Brits of the Middle Ages needed a judge to help them decide how all these European words should be used. The French had a good word for a judge, or arbitrator: nonper, meaning ‘not equal’. Unfortunately the medieval Brits misdivided a noumpere too, and an umpire was born.
Read the first batch: Words that were formed by mistake
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Words come into being in all sorts of ways.
They are adopted from other languages (anorak), created by affixing (beauti-ful) or removing affixes (editor), and made by joining (football) or blending (blog) words together. Some words get converted to a different part of speech (to table) or are based on sound (click). There are acronyms (laser), abbreviations (ad) and words derived from people (Marxist). Of course, some new words are simply made up (quark).
What I love is when a word is misheard or misunderstood, leading to a new word that has been formed by mistake. There are quite a few of these in our language. Some make me smile, others make me cringe. But I find all of them fascinating – words that arrived into the dictionary due to a large slice of luck.
In the Middle Ages, the French tablecloth, nappe, inspired British cooks to use naperons to keep themselves clean while cooking. Eventually, the kitchen hands misheard ‘a napron’ enough times as ‘an apron‘ that the wrong version stuck. The same thing happened with the tool for boring: a nauger became an auger.
In fact, these medieval folk got confused with many of these new words sailing in from mainland Europe. When the German word for snake, natter, came over as a naddre, the same wrong division turned it into an adder. Good job, or those mathematics jokes would never have worked (even adders can multiply using log tables, etc.).
What should you call a seminar on the web?
Clue: semin is the part of the word that means ideas, -ar the bit that denotes a place to share them. If the place that you are going to share those ideas is the web, then surely you change the bit at the end? To seminet, for example (thanks Geoff Stevenson for the suggestion). Sadly some marketing plank got there first, chopped semin in half, destroying the word’s meaning, and coined webinar instead.
Back formations are new words formed from existing ones based on conventional patterns. Take orient, meaning ‘east’. Aligning yourself with the east (with a compass for example) became known as orientation. This was unnecessary (what’s wrong with orienting?) and fooled us Brits into creating the verb orientate. To orient, as the Americans say, makes much more sense.
Another verb that divides American and British English is the action of a burglar. Knowing that one who commits burglary is called a burglar, Victorian Brits treated the word as though it were burgler – in other words, made from the verb to burgle. It wasn’t. As a verb, to burglar, burglate or burglarate would have been more conventional. The Americans plumped for burglarize.
The British solution may be irregular but it’s neat, and wins the argument not least because the American choice led to the new noun burglarizer. That’s just silly.
Finally, a mistake that children often make is to think that because a word ends in ‘s’ it must be plural – for example: ‘I got a bru on my leg’. And adults do exactly the same thing. Your favourite little green vegetable was once called a pease (hence the pudding) until it was taken for plural, and renamed a pea. Cute.
I’ve got more of these if you enjoyed them. Tell me on Twitter if you’d like seconds.
Few things have given me more pleasure than reading The Hobbit to my boys. I loved the book as a child and bringing it to life with silly accents and descriptions of Smaug that make my seven-year-old cower under his covers is priceless.
The Hobbit is a charming adventure, and it doesn’t matter to me that as literature, Tolkien’s style is often wanting. Except for one weakness, which is an obvious mistake that many people make in their own business writing.
Take this passage:
‘This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.’
We know that Bilbo is walking down a tunnel; there is no need to specify ‘in front of him’ or ‘down there’. And as the author has just taken a paragraph to describe the red light, ‘in the red glow’ is laying it on a bit thick. Even ‘in its sleep’ is redundant. When else do animals snore?
‘This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring
in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.’
On almost every page of The Hobbit Tolkien doubles up phrases that mean the same thing.
‘… neither up nor down it could he find anything: nothing at all, no sign of goblins, no sign of dwarves’
‘At that Thorin shut his mouth and would not say another word.’
‘They were alone in the perilous waste without hope of further help.’
‘… ridges that fell ever downwards towards the plain.’
‘Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail…’
Saying the same thing twice in different words is a form of tautology. It can be hard to avoid (as I’m discovering painfully in redrafting my own book) when you are trying to emphasise a point. Do it once or twice and no one will notice. Do it repeatedly, and your writing becomes bloated and unconvincing.
Examine, if you can stay awake, these bullet points from a website spec document:
• Website needs to be designed and implemented with usability and easy user interaction as key objectives
• Usability best practice needs to be adhered to
Aside from the unnecessary ‘designed and implemented’, look how many different ways usability is stressed:
= easy user interaction
= usability best practice
needs to be designed
= as key objectives
= best practice needs to be adhered to
What’s wrong with…?
• Website must be highly usable
Or take this property description from an estate agent website:
The property is convenient for easy access to all nearby facilities.
= easy access to
Wouldn’t it be clearer to say…?
The house is near shops.
The simple, say-it-once approach gets the message across clearly, without causing the reader to gouge her brain out with a plastic fork. In the case of the spec document, it would also have cut the number of pages in half.
I wonder how much shorter The Lord of the Rings might have been if Tolkien had edited out the repetition? (Peter Jackson would still have made three 4-hour films out of it, mind).
George Orwell said it best: ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’
You may think that you are emphasising a point, but tautology is a weakness in style. You will get your point across more effectively if you stick to plain English.
Because – the reader gets it the first time.
On the Internet, writing clear text that a 12-year-old can read is something to aim for, not be ashamed of. The clearer and simpler you write, the more people will understand what you are saying.
Search for readability tools and you’ll find loads. Many of them will give you a list of scores for a glut of different indexes. You’ll wonder what the difference is between SMOG, Flesch-Kincaid, ARI, Coleman Liau…?
The answer is very little. Also, who cares? Let me share with you four tools I actually use to help clients to improve the readability of their writing. All the tools are free, online, and easy to use.
The Up-goer five text editor highlights any words outside the most common 1,000 in English. Trying to replace them can be infuriating, and addictive, but ultimately pushes you towards plain, readable language.
In the end, you do not need to keep to such a small group of words. But the Up-goer Five works because it trains you to find more simple and clear words that everyone can read. These three lines only use words from the top 1,000 – and you can understand them well enough, right?
Gunning Fog is the one index I use to get a readability score. The score is based on sentence length and number of long words (by syllables). There is a website where you can submit text to find its score.
I like the clear boundaries. A Gunning Fog score of 14 means that a person needs roughly 14 years of schooling to understand. A score of 12 or less is thought to be widely readable; under 8, universally so.
One client recently took an awkward email he had written and reduced the Gunning Fog score from the mid 20s down to 4. In the process, it became a tenth of its original length. It was easier to read and made the point brilliantly.
The Google reading level filter is useful for comparing the readability of whole websites against each other.
Using the advanced search in Google, you can perform a blank search of a specific website and ‘annotate results with reading levels’. The search results will be topped with a chart showing what percentage of the website’s pages are considered basic, intermediate and advanced when it comes to reading level.
For example, check out some of the UK’s leading newspapers:
Results still need interpretation. For example, that surprisingly high percentage of advanced reading level pages at The Sun? They are mostly adverts in their Business Directory, not writing.
But if you’re looking for an overview of readability in a website, it’s a quick and easy tool to use. Just don’t forget – basic is good.
The Writer’s Diet readability tool goes one step further by looking at grammar. Specifically, it analyses your writing sample for:
Test results are amusingly phrased in fitness terms and you can download a full diagnosis that explain the principles behind the analysis.
I find the Writer’s Diet tool helpful for going beyond mere sentence and word length, to remind me about elements of style that make writing easier to read.
Well, when an editor and content management system love each other very much…
No, really, who writes all those little words that play such an important role on a website?
36 headings and subheadings
32 image alt tags
24 text links
21 button names
20 section, column or tab headings
19 sub navigation items
17 link titles
14 drop down options
10 form titles
10 form watermarks
4 menu items
3 link icons
2 error messages
1 hover text
1 image link
1 list of meta keywords
1 meta description
1 module title
1 page title appendix
1 strap line
1 tag line
And that’s not all of it. This microcopy was extracted for translation but only part of the site was being translated. Also, where copy was repeated or near repeated – especially true in the metadata – only one message was sent for translation.
In other words, there’s a lot, lot more where that came from.
And that’s just one website. And it’s not even that big.
Who writes the microcopy?
So who writes all this stuff?
Some is automatically generated – in fact this list doesn’t include microcopy autogenerated by the ecommerce software, for example for the purchasing process. That is set in the software, and comes with a translate button (a helpful feature within Shopify).
Some metadata is autogenerated by the CMS, working off the page content. At times this is just perfect – at others it needs to be hand fettled.
But the rest of the microcopy – the bulk of it – is written by human beings. In Fluent, that’s me. Clients are often blissfully unaware that these little words exist, or that there are so many of them. And yet they play such an important role in creating the user experience, tone of voice and converting traffic into business.
Plan it, write it, review it. That’s how these babies are made.