This week I’ve had the great joy of learning to use new kitchen appliances (I’ve waited a long time for this new kitchen).
Mixed with the pleasure of having appliances that are new and clean comes the challenge of re-learning things that are almost automatic. I’ve spent a week referring to manuals as I try to understand the simplest things. At the moment, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever remember how to set the timer or choose the right cooking program.
Instruction manuals have a bad reputation: readers expect them to be complex, inaccessible, and written in appalling English. The reading environment doesn’t help: readers are in a hurry; readers are often frustrated and confused; readers want answers to specific questions, which can be difficult for writers to anticipate; the content is often complex; readers want to use the product, not read about it.
I read somewhere that instruction manuals are poor because they’re written by the most expendable person in the company. The company’s most useful minds are busy designing new products.
Overall, I don’t have much to complain about with my user manuals. So far I’ve succeeded in finding all the answers I need.
But here’s a lovely sentence that got me thinking about complexity – and how to simplify it.
My ASKO appliance manual opens with the heading:
Important safety instructions.
It then has a sub-heading:
Carefully read the instructions and save them for future reference.
So far, so good. But here’s the first real sentence:
This appliance may only be used by children aged 8 years and above and persons with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities or lack of experience and knowledge if supervision or instructions are provided to them concerning use of the appliance in a safe way and if they understand the hazards involved.
I’m lost. And I’m certainly not inspired to read the rest of the manual.
This sentence is about complex stuff, and the writer confuses us in three ways: (1) no punctuation to help readers recognise the different parts of the sentence, (2) excessive use of ‘and’ and ‘or’ – with no indication of whether they’re being used within one idea or to join different ideas, and (3) the ‘only … if’ construction – with is fine if there’s one ‘only’ set against one ‘if’, but becomes very confusing if it’s written ‘only … and … and … or … if … and … if’.
If I’m asked to simplify sentences like this, I resist the temptation to just add some punctuation or fiddle with the wording.
I start by trying to understand the structure of the sentence by grouping words into ideas and labelling those ideas. So I’d work on the sentence like this:
- ‘children aged 8 years and above’ becomes ‘them’
- ‘persons with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities or lack of experience and knowledge’ becomes ‘them too’
- ‘if supervision or instructions are provided to them concerning use of the appliance in a safe way’ becomes ‘if this happens’
- ‘if they understand the hazards involved’ becomes ‘if this happens too’.
The original sentence is constructed like this:
This appliance can only be used by them and them too if this happens and this happens too.
Now I can see that ‘only’ isn’t needed. And I also wonder whether ‘can’ would be better as ‘should’.
Then I’d get:
This appliance should be used by them and them too if this happens and this happens.
Doing this helps me to understand how the different parts of the sentence work together. Now I’m ready to think about how to simplify it.
In this case, I don’t think it’s enough to simply rewrite the complex parts into something more simple. This concept would be better as multiple sentences, and the content needs re-thinking.
As this is the first sentence on the first page of the instructions, I wonder whether it would make more sense to start with a statement about who should use the appliance, rather than who should not. That might give a context for what is to follow.
I might write:
This appliance is intended for use by people who have the necessary skill and competence to understand its operation.
Then I might decide to separate the different groups who need special support. Children first:
Children under 8 should be constantly supervised when using this appliance.
I think that’s enough content about children. But if ASKO needs more, I could write:
Children aged 8 and above should only use the appliance without supervision if they are fully familiar with its operation and safety requirements.
I need to address the second group of people, so I could write:
People with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities and people who lack experience in using appliances may need training or supervision about safe ways to use the appliance.
If that’s still not enough, I could write:
Ensure that all users understand how to use the appliance in a safe way and understand the hazards involved.
Now I can think about the order of my new sentences.
My first draft of a new version of ASKO’s sentence is:
This appliance is intended for use by people who have the necessary skill and competence to understand its operation. Ensure that all users understand the appliance’s safe use and the hazards involved. Children under 8 years of age should be constantly supervised when using this appliance. People with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities and people who lack experience in using appliances may need training or supervision about the appliance’s safe use.
The original sentence has become four sentences in my first rewrite. It’s still fairly complex, and I’m sure that it could be further improved. But with the new version, readers have some chance of reading it once and understanding what it means. With ASKO’s original version, readers were likely to become confused by the sentence’s complex structure.