Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Have you ever bought a computer or piece of furniture - only to be so confused by the instruction booklet that you couldn't figure out how to put it together? Today word maven Patricia T. O’Conner talks about badly written instructions, and what makes them so confusing. Call 212-433-9692 or post a comment on the use and misuse of the English language.

If your question isn’t answered on air, you can email Patricia directly by going to her website,, and clicking on "write us."

Woe Is I Jr. is available for purchase at

Weigh In: What are the most confusing instructions you've ever received?


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [16]

Alex Levi from New York City

"You can never put too much water in a nuclear reactor." -- does that mean 'never put too much water' or 'you can put as much water as you like'? A paradigmatic dilemma, to be sure, with far-reaching implications, as far as instructions go.

Oct. 19 2007 12:31 AM
Tom Sileo from New Jersey

How about a variation on poorly written instructions, and that would be all of the warnings on instructions. It makes you wonder what people must have done in the past to induce companies to put such ridiculous warnings in writing.

For those who love the English language, I recommend "The Mother Tongue: English And How It Got That Way" by Bill Bryson. It is wonderfully funny and informative.

Oct. 17 2007 07:09 PM
Constantin from Edison, NJ

As a follow up to the word "integrous": although not in my Webster dictionary, the word appears to have a valid (and necessary) meaning. There is an equivalent French word "integre", and, in my native Romanian "integru". There are phonetic equivalents in most other romance languages as well. I guess "integrous" would describe much better the meaning of "un-corrupted", rather than the equivalent english word "integer", which is overloaded with various meanings.

English language is afterall renown for absorbing many new words, not just casually, but rather when a precise meaning is lacking. Nowadays it seems a necessity to be "integrous".

Oct. 17 2007 01:53 PM
Adam from Park Ridge, NJ

I believe people who get civil unions become civilized. If they end the relationship, they become uncivilized.

My pet language peeve: "He has another think coming." Shouldn't it be "He has another THING coming"?

Oct. 17 2007 01:31 PM
Jeff from San Angelo, Texas

I believe "try and do it" can be correct, if the direction is to try something and do something. Example: Try and play baseball. Try baseball, and play baseball both are correct. I agree that in general, however, "try to do it" is the proper form.

Oct. 17 2007 01:28 PM
dee riou

as a registrar in New Jersey, I have issued civil union licenses and marriage licenses. I would suggest civil or domestic partners. I also believe we all should be e civil or domestic partners. Forget the mariage or civil unions distinction.

Oct. 17 2007 01:27 PM
Nancy from manhattan

Also -- has the word "disinterested" changed meaning? I always thought this meant totally neutral, but it often seems to be used in place of "uninterested". Am I madly old-fashioned?

Oct. 17 2007 01:26 PM
Ryan from New York

Excuse - when did "me" become the taboo object of a preposition!

Oct. 17 2007 01:26 PM
kc from massapequa

I'm curious in the use of the word "out," as in we will paint "out" the woodwork. I don't understand its use.

Oct. 17 2007 01:25 PM
Karen from Brooklyn

I've been hearing cashiers say "next online" instead of "next in line" when referring to the next person standing in line to pay. Is this proper? Or has the world of online computing altered how we speak?

Oct. 17 2007 01:25 PM
Ryan from New York

Following up on caller's comments on prepositions, it really bothers me when people over-correct - the best example is "between you and I". When did "me" become the taboo preposition?!!

Oct. 17 2007 01:24 PM
Nancy from manhattan

When did the word "JUST" begin being pronounced as "JIST"?? Drives me crazy...

Oct. 17 2007 01:20 PM
Telford Vice from Durban, South Africa

Does coolth exist, as the opposite of warmth?
What is gorm, and how do we get some to the gormless?

Oct. 17 2007 01:19 PM
JB from Upper East Side

one of the funniest stand-up sets i have ever heard was comedian Craig Baldo talking about buying a new paper shreder:

it was based on the idea that the INSTRUCTION MANUAL was in your hand the first time you plugged the shedder in. you would instictively shred it... if it worked i guess you didn't need the manual anymore! if not, then read!

something like that

Oct. 17 2007 12:08 PM

For a while I considered becoming a technical writer. Lately, the thought has re-entered my mind. I'll listen in for tips!

Oct. 17 2007 10:14 AM
Marc Naimark from Paris, France

When I saw the main topic of Patricia's bit today, I thought of a website I used to visit, one of several "worst manual contests". What I found was that it, and several other sites that held such contests, seems to have stopped the event. This makes me worried: have people just given up on having properly written manuals?

And in defense of translators, my own experience on manuals as a translator is that I am often given just the text of instructions, totally out of context. I have no idea what the product is and I'm not given the graphics, so I do a lot of improvisation... and pity the poor sod who has to try to follow what I've written.

Oct. 17 2007 04:10 AM

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