The Dawn of a New Error

SAN FRANCISCO (07/05/2000) - Upon marrying a surgeon, I discovered a surprising characteristic of doctors: When writing professionally, they write exclusively in passive voice: "The patient was examined," not "I examined the patient"; "The wound was cleaned and dressed," not "We cleaned and dressed the wound"; and so on. It's as though 12 years of English class had never happened.

Imagine, then, the sense of irony I feel on realizing that exactly the same phenomenon haunts my other marriage-to the Mac. The otherwise elegant Mac OS is one giant, seething mass of awkward, passive-voice messages: "The document could not be printed"; "A folder cannot be replaced by a file"; and the immortal "The command could not be completed, because it could not be found."

Apple Computer Inc.'s problem: It's afraid to use pronouns. It doesn't want the computer, an inanimate object, to call itself "me" and you "you." Maybe avoiding "I" and "me" is Apple's way of ducking blame; maybe the programmers think that if they write "AppleTalk could not be opened" instead of "I couldn't open it," it won't occur to us that the computer caused its own problem.

Apple's writers twist themselves into knots trying to avoid pronouns, but there's simply no elegant way to do it. Sometimes they give up and just omit the I-word, resulting in a crude shorthand: "Could not update the settings."

Unfortunately for them, God put pronouns on this earth for a reason; trying to write error messages that never refer to either you or the computer is like trying to write a novel without ever using the letter e.

It doesn't have to be this way. Plenty of error messages in other programs include pronouns with great success, and even manage to be entertaining. The C Compiler in MPW (a Macintosh programming tool kit) gives you messages like this: "You can't modify a constant, float upstream, win an argument with the IRS, or satisfy this compiler." Or this: "Type in (cast) must be scalar; ANSI 3.3.4; page 39, lines 10-11. (I know you don't care, I'm just trying to annoy you.)" Or how about "This label is the target of a goto from outside of the block containing this label AND this block has an automatic variable with an initializer AND your window wasn't wide enough to read this whole error message."

Whoever wrote Eudora has a similar sense of humor. Its famous error messages include "That pesky MacTCP is acting up again" and "Memory is tight-Live Dangerously." Now, honestly, wouldn't you like the Mac OS a lot better if it exhibited that much personality? Not only would you not mind having encountered a glitch, you'd actually kind of like it.

Oh, all right, I know hell will freeze over before Apple writes funny error messages into the Mac OS. And Apple certainly does better than Microsoft, whose error messages sometimes lie outright. (Double-click on the CD-ROM icon when you don't have a disk inserted, and you're told that "The device is not ready.") But I know a way Apple could fix its error-message problem without soiling its shiny corporate shoes: adopt an error-message philosophy like that of Citibank.

It's worth standing behind a total stranger at a Citibank cash machine just to read the messages, which sound like a particularly worshipful butler.

"Hello-how may I serve you?" it says when you first sign in. When you sign off, it says, "Thank you. It's always a pleasure to serve you." And if you get your password wrong, it takes the blame: "I'm sorry, I don't recognize that password"-not "That's not the right password, you idiot!"

Well, we know it's just an inanimate piece of software-but darn it, you walk away from that cash machine with a spring in your step. You feel good about yourself, having given that little machine a chance to take pride in a job well done. Apple thinks people love their Macs now? If it introduced pronouns and a little bit of humility into its error messages, people would not just love their Macs-they'd prostrate themselves in a religious frenzy.

Only one solution would make a better fit with Apple's artistic sensibility: to write all error messages in haiku. In 1996,'s contest to write haiku error messages showed us just how much better the world would be if error messages went along the lines of this one by reader David Dixon:

Three things are certain:

Death, taxes, and lost data.

Guess which has occurred.

DAVID POGUE ( is the author of Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual and iMovie: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press, 2000).

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