Why you do not want to sound like a robot

“We shouldn’t use contractions because…” Let’s debunk all that. Read more.

Why you do not want to sound like a robot

By Cathy Moore

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Robot“We shouldn’t use contractions because then people won’t take the content seriously.” Sound familiar?

Or maybe you’ve heard this: “We shouldn’t use contractions because they’re confusing for people who speak English as a second language.”

The result of these beliefs can be robotic chanting like the paragraph that you are reading now. I will not use contractions as I say that sometimes we become obsessed with details of grammar that are not actually useful, and as a result of this obsession we do not see the big picture. We are too busy enforcing small rules that do not help the learner, so we do not realize that our learner is thinking, “I will leave this course now because this text I am reading did not come from a human being.”

“They won’t take it seriously!”

Here’s what Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer have to say about “conversational” style in e-Learning and the Science of Instruction:

“Research on discourse processing shows that people work harder to understand material when they feel they are in a conversation with a partner rather than simply receiving information.”

Clark and Mayer dispute claims that the content must sound stiff and serious for learners to take it seriously. They go on to cite studies that showed that saying “you” improved learning, as did using a human narrator instead of a machine-simulated one and adding a friendly helper in the form of Herman the Bug.

I like to think that it’s safe to extend Clark and Mayer’s “personalization principle” to contractions, because people and bugs named Herman use contractions, though I’m not aware of research specifically on contractions in elearning. But if our goal is to sound like a human being, contractions definitely help, especially in an audio script.

Even the US Federal Plain Language Guidelines tell us to use contractions when appropriate: “Contractions make your writing more accessible to the reader. Research shows that that they also enhance readability.”

“Contractions confuse people who speak English as a second language.”

Some people worry that learners who speak English as a second language have trouble understanding contractions. I’ve tutored many new English speakers, and contractions are one of the first things they learn to understand. They might not use contractions themselves for awhile, but they understand them.

The trick is to know your learners. If they rarely use English at work, then yes, they would benefit from extremely simple language (or, better, materials in their language).

However, if you expect your learners to know enough English to read your advanced text about cross-border pharmaceutical regulations, then there’s no reason to worry about contractions. If a simple “don’t” stumps your learner, they won’t understand the rest of the course, either.

“Contractions interfere with automatic translation.”

Some people also say that contractions mess up machine translation. I’m not sure where this belief comes from. Even the free, feeble Google translator understood and translated this: “If you don’t know how to read, you might have trouble using an online course.” It was also fine with sentences using “doesn’t,” “couldn’t,” “hasn’t,” “we’re,” and “we’ll,” and then my short attention span kicked in, but I’m confident that other common contractions survive translation as well.

Image ©iStockPhoto | hundreddays

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11 comments on “Why you do not want to sound like a robot

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  1. I think this is one of those myths that has gotten perpetuated over the years with nothing to actually back it up. “Because contractions are casual and therefore not professional” — that’s the only real argument I’ve ever heard. Which is sorta like saying wearing jeans make you do lower quality work than wearing panty hose or something.

  2. Kia ora Cathy

    Strange how the use of the written word has become subject to policy, preference and precept since the dictionary was invented. The book became the oracle of the publisher and with the reverance placed on the published word came a worshipping of the dictionary by scholars of the written language.

    In a similar sense, the way words are spelt has found its way down the slithery slope, as has so-called correct grammar when it comes to correctly writing the stuff so grammarians will put up with it.

    Even more strange is that the authors, who have been revered by scholars over the centuries, often spelt words differently even in the same sentence, for Donne and Shakespeare both spelt their own surnames differently on many occasions. And don’t think they’d never use contractions.

    I say useage has to call the shots. When it’s said, “that isn’t how it’s written”, I say, “well that’s how it’s said.” Are we to misquote how things’re spoken?

    You think that’d be taking political correctness a bit too far? It happens.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  3. The myth that using contractions won’t make the learner take it seriously probably carried over from thesis-writing, along with making the content impersonal and more scholarly-like. Fortunately, that has never been an issue with the projects I’ve held before.

    However, my hands are tied when it comes to content that I absolutely CAN’T revise because there’s a clause in the contract or because it will be translated back into the original language. Darn contracts…

  4. Coming from the school of grammar of Sr. Gertrude (with her ruler poised), I have always been a stickler for proper English, especially when it came to professional writing. BUT, I think “professional writing” styles are continuously evolving (remember “dear sir or madam”? please don’t ever call me madam), especially with the proliferation of social media. We present ourselves professionally not only through peer-reviewed journal articles and books, but also through media such as instant messaging, twitter, blogs and the like. I don’t personally know many of my followers on twitter, but have never once addressed any of them as sir or madam, and i rarely bother to (gasp) properly capitalize or use full sentences. As we get used to this style of communication, we can bet our learners are as well and will probably start to expect a more casual, conversational style of writing in learning experiences.
    As you can see, I never did learn to appropriately break up a paragraph, which might be an entirely different topic so I’ll end it at that 😉

  5. I am developing a dissertation question about this topic. I want to know if adult learners will learn more (not like it more) if the content is written in a conversational style that forces the learner to reflect and connect with the content. I think the use of an audio-tutorial or a study guide can be effective, but there is a lack of research.

    I am in the Instructional Technology and Design program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.

  6. @Scott – I don’t think using a conversational style will ‘force’ the learner to reflect and connect – I suspect the beneficial effect is rather more that it reduces the ‘distance’ the learner feels, thus making connection easier. The effect that Clark and Mayer get at is akin to the difference between listening to a lecture and being involved in a conversation.

    I’m really not sure what the source of the fear of conversational language is – in most cases when I have queried a request to make things more formal the SME has usually agreed in principle, but then insisted that they are simply enforcing some mysterious dictat. I would guess that at the root of it is a fear that either:
    1) learners will be ‘turned off’ by over-friendly language in just the same way hand-held camera work a la ER turns off some (usually older) viewers, or
    2) informal language may not be perceived as precise enough, perhaps in the view of the law.

    The first may be legitimate in the case of some target audiences. In the second case, is anyone aware of a training course ever forming part of a legal case against a company for failing to have taught them appropriately?

  7. Thanks for the interesting comments.

    I think we get learners to reflect by asking them questions, and I think we’re naturally more likely to ask them questions if we’re writing in a conversational style. Addressing the reader as “you” reminds me that I’m talking to a person, which means I’m having a sort-of conversation, and in a conversation, you’re supposed to ask an occasional question to involve the other party, so asking questions becomes automatic.

    As readers, I suspect our ingrained rules of politeness and self-interest make us listen more closely to someone who’s speaking directly to us and asking us questions. It’s harder for me to tune out someone who keeps saying “you” to me and asking for a response.

    Frankly, I think some of the fear of conversational language comes from the fear of equality. Formal language establishes and maintains a hierarchy. I am superior to you if I can issue edicts in what would be rude language among friends. I am impressive if I can create long, complex sentences and use words with many syllables.

    The need to impress is deeply engrained and often rewarded. I remember but can’t find a study that showed that teachers who claimed to prefer plain English actually gave higher grades to wordy, dry writing. We probably all have anecdotal reports of that.

    I suspect that research into the cognitive effects of conversational style would do well to include readability scores in the mix. A conversational style may “teach” more not just because it increases connection but because it’s simpler and reduces cognitive load.

    I’m very dimly aware of a lawsuit about an anti-harassment course that failed to stop harassment. I doubt the lawsuit involved the language of the course, but does anyone know more about that case?

  8. Hi Cathy,

    I thought this was an extremely practical approach and totally concur with your views. I’ve always done what I thought would be more appealing to the learner even if it sounds more informal. I do use contractions like let’s especially for Web based tutorials, where i want the learner to understand that ‘we’ are going to learn something now.. “Let’s take a look at how…”

    I really found this post very useful.


  9. I always use the research results of Clark and Mayer as design guidelines.

    Sounding like a robot… I am struggling with this line right now: “…axial displacement as a result of thermal expansion of the shaft”.


  10. I teach students in my English classes that not using contractions is like me speaking Spanish and using pronouns before the verb — “yo voy”, “nosotros vamos”. In Spanish, the pronouns are unnecessary and annoying to listen to because they’re just not part of common speach. When they are used, it’s to put stress on the subject “yo” (I), as oppposed to “Ud.” (you). In English, when I say “I do not want you to do that”, I’m stressing the “not.” Two sentences ago, when I wrote “When they are used”, I wanted the ‘are’ to stand out — ‘are’ as opposed to ‘are not’. But if I had followed it with “it is to put stress” the “is” would have equally stood out which I didn’t want. My point is, whether I’m speaking or writing, contractions convey normal communication and lack of contractions conveys that I’m putting stress on the uncontracted word.

  11. As an ESL person, I completely agree with Brenda’s way of seeing things. When someone speaks to me using no contractions, I understand that this person wants to put stress on words.
    But in the course of my work, being an instructional designer, I confirm also that my SMEs in English would ask me to go for “no contractions”. They mostly are ESL SMEs…I will remember this post when justifying my choices.
    And the funniest point is that I just wrote with no contractions. That IS the way we are taught English in France…