Redundancy is useful
Saint Jerome in the Wilderness by Bernardino Pinturicchio. St Jerome is the patron saint of translators.

I used to translate. At the time I honestly believed in the fixed code model of communication: that there is meaning in the source text and that the task of the translator is to convey that meaning in the target text as exactly as possible. That view of language also included the belief that it is possible to convey meanings precisely, concisely, economically.

In the translation world I had an idol, a guru who had brought me to the field in the first place, and who was very good at this precise writing, which I respected and envied a lot. But then one day I was given a translation to evaluate. The translation was very difficult to read, each sentence made sense on the 5th reading or so. I didn’t know who the translator was, and my evaluation was that this translation is not usable at all as purposeful written communication in the target language.

Later I learned that the translator had been my guru. Even later, I figured out what had been wrong with his translation. Its lack of redundancy.

Being partly predictable makes a text longer, but easier to read. It’s like error-correction codes in machine communication1, saying the same thing more than once just to make sure that it reaches the receiver successfully. Humans only use it on a much larger scale, because in addition to channel noise that both types of communication share, the human version also has to cope with individual differences in the receiving abilities of potential hearers.

When describing communication as uncertainty reduction, communicative success is vastly dependent on the uncertainty the hearer has about the intentions of the speaker. That uncertainty in turn depends on the prior experiences of the hearer, including experiences with listening to this particular speaker, and experiences shared with this speaker. A well-known example is how economically we can communicate with the people closest to us. Sometimes a brief glance is enough to reduce the other person’s uncertainty about our thoughts in a way that would require lengthy explanations among strangers.

Economising in the same way in written communication with a partly unknown audience (like in a user manual) simply means delegating the hard work to the hearer. Some of the hearers will have much more uncertainty than the ultra-concise text is capable of reducing at first reading. To cater for those readers as well, writers might consider including more redundancy than when communicating with their closest colleagues.

1 Shannon, C. E. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. The Bell System Technical Journal, 27(July, October), 379–423, 623–656.

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