Mike Croucher wrote a post the other day explaining why he’s going to buy an iPad. He said that one of the objections to the iPad he’d heard was
Apple are evil because they take away control of how we use their devices.
I teased Mike that I would never say “Apple are evil.” On this side of the Atlantic we’d say “Apple is evil.” But in the UK it is accepted usage to say “Apple are evil.”
“Apple” is a collective noun when used to refer to Apple Inc. British English treats collective nouns as plural, but American English treats them as singular. Although the British usage sounds odd to my American ears, it makes sense just as much sense as the American convention. You could argue for plural verbs because corporations are made of individual people, or you could argue for singular verbs because the corporations act as a single entity. See Grammar Girl’s tip on collective nouns for more background.
By the way, I don’t believe Apple is evil. They’re just a company, no more or less virtuous than most other companies.
Every time your software displays an error message, you risk losing credibility with your users. If the message is grammatically incorrect, your credibility definitely goes down a notch. And if the message is unhelpful, your credibility goes down at least one more notch. The same can be said for any message, but error messages are particularly important for three reasons.
- Users are in a bad mood when they see error messages; this is not the time to make things worse.
- Programmers are sloppy with error messages because they’re almost certain the messages will never be displayed.
- Error conditions are unusual by their very nature, and so it’s practically impossible to discover them all by black-box testing.
The best way to find error messages is to search the source code for text potentially displayed to users. I’ve advocated this practice for years and usually I encounter indifference or resistance. And yet nearly every time I extract the user-visible text from a software project I find dozens of spelling errors, grammar errors, and incomprehensible messages.
Last year I wrote an article for CodeProject on this topic and provided a script to strip text strings from source code. See PowerShell Script for Reviewing Text Shown to Users. The script looks for all quoted text and text inside XML entities. Then it tries to filter out text strings that are not displayed to users. For example, a string with no spaces is more likely to be a file name or some other code fragment than a user message. The script produces a report that a copy editor can then review. In addition to checking spelling and grammar, an editor can judge whether a message would be comprehensible and useful.
I admit that the parsing in the script is crude. It could miss some strings, and it could filter out some strings that it should keep. But the script is very simple, less than 100 lines. And it works on multiple source code types: C++, C#, XML, VB, etc. Writing a sophisticated parser for each of those languages would be a tremendous amount of work, but a quick-and-dirty script may be 98% as effective. Since most projects review 0% of their source code text, reviewing 98% is an improvement.
In addition to improving the text that a user sees, a text review gives some insight into a program’s structure. For example, if messages are repeated in multiple files, most likely the code has a lot of “clipboard inheritance,” code copied and pasted rather than isolated into reusable functions. A text review could also determine whether a program is concatenating strings to build SQL statements rather than calling stored procedures, possibly indicating a security vulnerability.
Some things are important because they’re unimportant. These things are not intrinsically important, but if not handled correctly they distract from what is important.
Content is more important than spelling and grammar. But grammatical errors are a distraction. Correct spelling and grammar are important so readers will focus on the content. Typos are trivial (more on “trivial” below) but worth eliminating.
When I was in college, the computer science department deliberately used a different programming language in nearly every course. The idea was that programming language syntax is unimportant, and constantly changing syntax would cause students to focus on concepts. This had the opposite of the desired effect. Since students were always changing languages, they were always focused on syntax. It would have made more sense to say that since we don’t believe programming language syntax is important, we’re going to teach all our lower division courses using the same language. That way the syntax can become second nature and students will focus on the concepts.
Grammar, whether in spoken languages or programming languages, is trivial. It is literally trivial in the original sense of belonging to the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These subjects were not the goal of classical education but the foundation of classical education. We now say something is “trivial” to indicate that it is unimportant, but in the past this meant that the thing was foundational. Calling something “trivial” meant that it was important in support of something else of greater interest.
When people call something trivial, they may be correct, but not in the sense they intended. They might mean that something is trivial in the modern sense when actually it’s trivial in the classical sense. For example, unit conversions are trivial. Just ask NASA about the Mars Climate Orbiter.
For a day or two, make note of every time you hear something called “trivial.” Ask yourself whether it is trivial in the modern sense of being simple and unimportant or whether it could be trivial in the classical sense of being foundational.
A friend of mine who is a linguist told me one time that most native English speakers have never had a course in English grammar. They’ve had courses in the pet peeves of English teachers, but have never seen a systematic description of the structure of the English language.
See also xylophones and zebras, learning Spanish.