Language properties

The ever-present danger that surfers may leave a site with a single click demands that the style be carefully chosen to offer a user-focused reading experience. Admittedly, reader-friendly writing was desirable long before the internet. It is part and parcel age-old considerations about the quality of language and communication which have crystallised in the form of prescriptive style guides, one example from the English-speaking world being “The Elements of Style” (Strunk and White 1975). Even in the new-media age its reputation as a classic has been maintained by allusions to its title, such as “The Elements of E-Mail Style” (Angell and Heslop 1994) and “The Elements of User Experience” (Garrett 2003:).

Unsurprisingly, general advice on good writing style is also applied to the web, as in these examples: “Write short, simple sentences”, “Cut unnecessary words”, “Put the action in the verb”, “Use your site visitor’s words”, “And always use plain language” and “Write in the active voice (most of the time)” (Redish 2012:198, 224). At the same time, linguistics aims to provide research-based guidance while qualifying over-generalisations. The passive voice, for instance, is suitable for expressing negative or unwelcome messages. Compare, for example, “Supplies of part X have been discontinued” with “We are discontinuing supplies of this part” (cf. Jakobs and Lehnen 2005: 180). Where dialogicity is involved, interaction style remains relevant. Here Redish (2012: 202) recommends using the imperative, directly addressing the reader as “you” to ensure gender neutrality and referring to the company or organisation behind the site as “we”.

In view of the large number of text types, hardly any general characteristics can be identified. Attaining even such apparently obvious aims as “clarity” in practice is heavily dependent on users’ status. Whereas for a subject specialist a precise technical term will probably make the meaning clear, the layperson may be better served by paraphrasing. For interdependencies with corporate language, see Chapter 27.

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