Friday, March 29, 2013

The Official Style: Redefined for Computer Programmers

The Official Style is typically found in contexts such as research articles, contractual or legal documents, scientific reports, or corporate reviews. But the style can be found outside of these contexts, as well. And each respective field requires information to be presented in different ways; thus, each field ends up with its own definition, or perhaps a dialect, of the Official Style. But some fields might have completely different rules of the Official Style. The usual forms, such as latinate diction, complex sentences, wordiness, and shapelessness don’t always apply. This is the case in the computer science field, where programmers become used to the Official Style as it exists in their field. This article is one example of the Official Style as programmers are used to it.
The article was written by an author through Oracle, the company that created the Java programming language. The author assumed that readers of the article would only be programmers in need of basic information pertaining to interfaces. He does, however, include information on where to find articles about more detailed aspects of Interfaces. The author also had to understand that each reader/programmer has different needs, has received a unique education, and learns in specific ways. (For simplicity, the rest of the article will use the word ‘reader’, which pertains to the programmers that access the article.) Because the author was tasked with writing an article to define the basics of an Interface for all readers completely, he also had to make it as widely accessible as possible. The Official Style of the Computer Science field offers guidelines on how to do that successfully, and the author follows those guidelines. If the article were to be written in a more creative or plain matter, the information the author is trying to convey might not be displayed in the best manner and it would fail to achieve its purpose.
            While learning languages, computer programmers become used to seeing certain problems. Obviously a problem must exist, otherwise there would be no reason to write a solution. So authors of educational texts tend to set up generic hypothetical situations for programmers learning the language in order to help them understand how a portion of code works. While it is a credible and easily understandable approach, it leads to some unfortunate bi-products in the writing. In this article, the author sets up one of these situations for the reader early:  “For example, imagine a futuristic society where computer-controlled robotic cars transport passengers through city streets without a human operator.” Because the situation is being established for the reader, the author is forced to use a slew of infinitive phrases: “ make the car move...,” “ command the car...,” “ modify it...” The combination of this and the lengthy hypothetical situation presented can make the section of the article seem choppy. But this is one feature of the Official Style in the Computer Science field, and it makes the article accessible to the largest number of readers.
            At times, the article uses language that suggests it is shying away from a professional tone and moving towards an informal tone. As the author establishes the problem which persists throughout the article, he says, “Automobile manufacturers write software (Java, of course) that operates the automobile.” The middle quip, “Java, of course,” brings the formality down a bit, and reminds the reader this is a hypothetical situation. The idea of Java programs running cars is far fetched and sounds like a joke to computer programmers, but the author has to set aside reality in order to bring the problem down to a level that every programmer can relate to. While these kinds of examples lack creativity after reading even just a few, the broadness and simplicity of such problems allows the widest variety of programmers who access the article the best chance of understanding it.
A screen shot showing a code-example used in the article.

            There are a few sections of the article which would seem like jargon to someone not meant to read the article, that is, someone who doesn’t understand computer programming. “When an instantiable class implements an interface, it provides a method body for each of the methods declared in the interface.” These are everyday terms used by programmers, and they can account for the articles readability, which is about 14. However, the article also contains lengthy sections of text which is meant to be code, throwing off the readability scores. But this is just another aspect of the Official Style in the Computer Science field. Often times, leaving out section of code like this would render the article completely useless. The Official Style requires that code be included in articles and texts such as this; it is usually necessary for the reader to fully understand the topic material. So if the readability is adjusted by ignoring all sections of text that are code,  the readability score changes to 12.5. The change isn’t much, and the score shouldn’t be taken to mean the exact grade level, either. Many programmers might not start programming until college or later, but might be able to read well at a 14th grade level or higher. So the readability scores are nearly useless to this article.
            The average person wouldn’t be able to find many elements of the Official Style in this article. But this article isn’t meant for the average person--the usual rules of the Official Style do not apply. The author tailored the article in the Official Style of the Computer Science, using a simple situation and portions of code to explain the subject matter in the greatest detail. The Official Style might not always be creative or fun to read, but it is the best choice for clear communication.

By Ethan B.

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