Any technical author who has experience in the preparation of technical documentation will appreciate the problems that arise when trying to select the right words. Do you start, commence, begin, or initiate an action? Not a problem to a reader whose mother tongue is English, but to the rest of the world it can be confusing to use more than one word for the same meaning.
Throughout the centuries there have been numerous proposals to reform the English language. Even in the United States the Simplified Spelling Board was set up to try to come to terms with a much simpler form of English. Mr Al Morin the former chairman of the American Simplified English committee said:
“The problems of publishing technical information are probably more diverse than those of any other publishing process. Not only is the information itself expanding at a tremendous rate, but it can come from diverse sources, such as the engineer who creates the product to the people who manufacture, inspect, service, and use it. All these people write and they all write to convey, often complex, information. The basic purpose of all writing is to get a message across to the reader: it must convey exact meaning. To serve this purpose well, it must be capable of being easily read and easily understood.”
More often than not, writing does get the intended message across but there are occasions when even the largest companies can fail.
The aerospace industry is one industry where the need for a standardisation of language was necessary. As English has been the official language of aviation since 1948, and since then many technical authors and translators, of many nationalities, have been busy either composing text in English or translating it into English. Consequently, all these people worked without any form of common standard of a form of controlled English that they could use based around a specific technical dictionary.
Therefore with this in mind, the major airlines within the aerospace industry, identified the need for a clear communication of complex maintenance data with some form of technical English.
In the late 1970’s the Association of European Airlines (AEA) asked the European Aviation Industry Association – Association Europeenne des Constructeurs de Materiel Aerospatial (AECMA) to apply a form of basic English to future documentation.
As a result the AECMA documentation working group was set up. The working group researched all the procedural text within the existing manuals and came up with its initial suggestions for improvement. The initial suggestions had highlighted the need to rationalise the number of verbs that were originally used. A list of recommended verbs and a draft set of writing rules were published in 1983. These rules give the guide-lines for the construction of sentences, paragraphs and the use of punctuation. In 1984 similar exercises took place to select nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.
When the study group had completed their research the AECMA simplified English version became a standard for the aerospace industry to use for all their technical documentation.
Simplified English had an earlier predecessor in the form of the limited word technical dictionary that was developed by McDonnell Douglas in 1979. The dictionary included 1,952 preferred words from the McDonnell Douglas technical manuals.
Prior to McDonnell Douglas the Caterpillar Tractor Company realised in 1971 that they had been struggling with the problems of communicating technical information to their non-English speaking distributors and customers. The company at the time had more than 20,000 publications that needed to be understood by people speaking a lot of different languages. Caterpillar Fundamental English, which was again a limited vocabulary was introduced. Caterpillar evaluated and rejected Basic English and Esperanto, because of their limited technical vocabularies, before deciding to develop Fundamental English.