Bitesize STE – is Simplified Technical English (STE) too simple?  

Bitesize STE is written by Mekon’s Simplified Technical English trainer Ciaran Dodd

Although ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English (STE) is thirty years old, I meet many people in technical communications who either do not know about STE or have misconceptions about it. In the next few issues of Bitesize STE we will examine some of these misconceptions and show how STE can work for you.

This month, we challenge the perception that STE is too simple, particularly for native English readers. We answer the question:

Is STE too simple?

Originally, STE was called AECMA Simplified English. The name was amended to Simplified Technical English in 2005 but the word ‘simplified’ can give the wrong impression, particularly to native English readers and writers. Common misconceptions are that:

  1. STE doesn’t allow you to be precise in what you want to say.
  2. STE sounds too simplistic and possibly unprofessional.
  3. STE can be too blunt.

These misconceptions come from two different angles – one related to STE and the other related to tradition.

The first angle is that STE controls your language by restricting your words and grammar. Here the rules on verbs (section 3) are particularly relevant. STE allows only five verb tenses and this does not include the popular ‘-ing’ form of the verb. Also, STE does not allow complex verb forms like: ‘The x must be tightened to 6 Nm.’ The biggest challenge is that you cannot use the passive voice: ‘Part A is connected to part B by a cable…’ becomes ‘A cable connects part A to part B’. Here we meet the second angle, tradition. The traditional writing style uses the ‘-ing’ verb form (often in titles), complex verb forms and the passive voice. So, for native English speakers especially, STE seems to make writing imprecise, simplistic and possibly unprofessional.

Another feature of traditional writing is to leave out words: ‘Attach nut to bolt.’ STE requires that key words are put in: ‘Attach the nut to the bolt.’ This helps non-native English users make sense of the text but also helps sentences to flow smoothly.

The final challenge comes from the word choices that STE gives you. STE tends to favour straightforward words like ‘do’, ‘put’, ‘move’. Also some phrases that are common such as ‘follow this procedure…’ change in STE because in STE ‘follow’ means ‘to come after’. So the phrase becomes: ‘Do the procedure that follows…’ or even ‘Obey the procedure’. I have had comments that these words and phrases sound too simplistic or in the case of ‘obey’, too blunt.

You can see from these few examples, that writing well in STE is anything but simple. But also, sometimes the challenge is less about the rules of STE and more about what you are used to reading or writing, particularly for native English speakers. So when we evaluate text in STE during training, we often have to ask: Is the text too simple or is it just different to what we are used to using? Ultimately, if the text says what the user needs to read clearly, does it matter if it is too simple?

View all Bitesize STE items

Simplified Technical English Training

This course is a practical introduction for those who will use Simplified Technical English (formerly AECMA Simplified English). The course introduces the philosophy of Simplified Technical English, explains the underlying grammatical principles and gives delegates opportunities to use Simplified Technical English in practical exercises. These exercises can be based on your company’s documentation.

Find out more about our Simplified Technical English Specification: ASD-STE100 training delivered by Ciaran

About Ciaran

“Who is your audience and what do they need?”
“How do you meet those needs efficiently, cost effectively and to a high standard?”

Ciaran Dodd has been ensuring that clients address both of these questions using ASD Simplified Technical English (ASD-STE100) since 2002, after being trained by the United Kingdom’s ASD-STE100 co-ordinator in 2001. Ciaran started her career in training at Rolls-Royce, which is where she became involved in training all aspects of writing, including ASD-STE100. After leaving the organisation, Ciaran set up an independent consultancy specialising in communication and learning skills. She has extensive experience of working with major names in engineering; particularly in defence aerospace and the automotive industries.

Ciaran is a qualified trainer, teacher and teacher of English as a foreign language. After completing a law degree at Cambridge University, she taught English in a Chinese university for two years. She has taught all aspects of the English language in commercial and public organisations since 1994.