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Re: Controlled Vocabularies Aid Translation and Content Management

From: Hamish Harvey <hamish@hamishharvey.com>
Date: Wed, 4 Oct 2006 10:33:49 +0100
Message-ID: <8f9aaf260610040233kc38f538p4a368e3d8bfe4949@mail.gmail.com>
To: "Karl Dubost" <karl@w3.org>
Cc: "Semantic Web" <semantic-web@w3.org>

Karl,

In Europe, and particularly in research projects funded by the
European Commission, I predict the gradual emergence of a new language
in a process of divergent evolution. Projects set out to establish
glossaries, even "languages", for the subject area, explicitly or
implicitly. The debate around the definitions of terms can take place
with remarkably little input from native English speakers. The result
is usages which (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) conflict with
regular English. A controlled vocabulary established in this sort of
context may well suffer the same fate: it will look like English, but
will be misinterpreted by people who have a good understanding of
English.

I was heartily entertained, and not a little frustrated, a year or two
ago by a heated debate about the meaning of a word which appeared
repeatedly in the description of work of an EC funded project. Here
another pressure was at work: a definition needed to be imparted to
the word which reflected what the project could actually produce. The
word, in this case, was "toolbox"; having no very firm meaning when
used metaphorically it was of course susceptible to misdefinition. The
definition established in the end was essentially that of the term
"catalogue".

The article Karl links to makes some good points about good writing
style, even providing supporting examples. It seems to make only
unsupported assertions about the benefits of use of controlled
vocabularies, however. Good writing style is a matter of education and
training. If the creators of technical documentation don't see any
need to invest in that, surely it is a pipe dream to imagine they will
invest considerably more to establish and ensure the effective use of
controlled vocabularies?

Generally, it would surely be better for documentation writers to
think hard about how what they write might be interpreted by a variety
of human readers than to expend effort ensuring it conforms with some
set of rules. It will be possible to write badly to any set of rules
sufficiently flexible to write documentation to.

Cheers,
Hamish

-- 
Hamish Harvey
Research Associate, School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences,
Newcastle University
Received on Wednesday, 4 October 2006 09:34:01 UTC

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