Monday, 23 August 2010

Strung up by the Syntax and Semantics

Ouch!! Sounds unpleasant doesn't it?

I've just re-read Eat Shoots and Leaves; originally read it a few years ago, then forgot about it after leaving my newly finished copy on an airport coach in some foreign land.

So, it was a joy to re-discover this book and read again over the summer.

What's all the fuss about? It's just punctuation!
That's the thing! A lot of testing communication - whether the requirement specification of the product or the reporting of the results and findings usually happens in written format, and it's the written format that has potential pitfalls for misunderstanding and confusion.

So, when you receive a document/description/mail is it always unambiguous. Is it ambiguous on purpose (ie unknown behaviour not documented) or by accident? Is your own writing similarly unambiguous?

True, it's possible for the spoken word to be ambiguous, but then we usually have the luxury or putting in a question to clarify our understanding.

So, the moral is: ambiguous? Start digging - is it accidentally unclear or is there a source of potential problems in your testing - the 'swampy area' on your testing map!

Superfluous hair remover
I'm getting into that age range where more hair is developing in "strange" places - ears - and less on the top of my head. I'd love to hear an evolutionary explanation for hairy ears - that were not needed until now... (Oh, I'm not being exclusive either: any creationist can chip in with the design explanation also. Agnostics: press the "don't know" button now.)

So when I read the phrase (superfluous hair remover) it immediately struck me on two levels - the age-related one that I just alluded to and the tester in me that wonders "what does that mean?" or "how do I interpret that?".
Do you see what I mean?
Is it talking about a hair remover device too many (a device that is superfluous) or is it talking about a remover of hair when you have more hair than is wanted (superfluous hair)?

What's the solution to this written problem? Well it's a hyphen. A "superfluous hair-remover" might be something I'd see advertised in a "Unwanted items" newspaper column. A "superfluous hair remover" or "superfluous-hair remover" might be something seen in a "For Sale" column or store. Note, there's still room for ambiguity though!

Don't always assume that the writer of a product description, specification or requirement outline or specification is writing exactly what they mean.

What, I hear you say, why wouldn't they write what they mean. Well, that comes down to ambiguity in the way someone (maybe not a technical writing specialist) describes the product - both the wording and the punctuation.

If it looks fishy/suspect - there's a good chance there is a need for testing investigation (and/or a bunch of questions).

Also if you're writing reports - whether test progress or bug reports - make sure that the written word is saying what you think it is (or at least your interpretation - true your interpretation may be skewed ...).

My sympathies to anyone who is writing or speaking in their non-native language. I make the odd slip in Swedish - although not as bad as a colleague who whilst giving a presentation got the emphasis wrong, so what should have been "you can see from the following six pictures" came across as "you can see from the following sex pictures" - that's one way to catch the attention of the audience!

Watch those hyphens and pauses!

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