The Microsoft Style Guide Part 2: Special Terms and Guidelines

In the previous blog post, we introduced the Microsoft Style Guide: Microsoft’s tech writing manual that emphasizes a clear, friendly voice and provides unified terminology and writing guidelines. Today, we’re exploring the Microsoft Style Guide’s special term collections, which are lists of set words and phrases used to avoid confusion, misunderstanding, and possible discrimination.

Microsoft’s term collections cover only a small portion of the extensive terminology it proffers, but these collections are set aside due to their importance and frequency of use. From terms about accessibility to those about date and time, these collections are useful to have in mind as you try to jot down or edit your writing. 


Accessibility terms

Microsoft has a long history of making its machines accessible for people with disabilities; Paul Schroeder of the American Foundation for the Blind even goes on to say that Microsoft has made “the strongest, most visible commitment to accessibility of any technology company.” Its efforts aren’t completely perfect—some versions of Internet Explorer have been less accommodating than others—but Microsoft has invested much effort into providing accessibility options for those that need it. 

It’s only natural, then, that the style guide offers specific terminology for phrases and words regarding accessibility. “Write in a way that puts people first,” the guide starts, “don’t use language that defines people by their disability.” It’s the right thing to do, of course, to make sure no one is left behind in the wake of technology, and this style guide aims to right some wrongly worded phrases that people use too often without thinking once again about how people with disabilities might want to be written. 

Here are some of the most important terms outlined in the guide:

  • Sight-impaired, vision-impaired → blind, has low vision
  • Hearing-impaired → deaf, hard-of-hearing
  • Crippled, lame → Has limited mobility, has a mobility or physical disability
  • Dumb, mute → Is unable to speak, uses synthetic speech
  • Affected by, stricken with, suffers from, a victim of, an epileptic → has multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder, or muscular dystrophy
  • Normal, able-bodied, healthy → without disabilities
  • Maimed, missing a limb → person with a prosthetic limb, person without a limb
  • The disabled, disabled people, people with handicaps, the handicapped → people with disabilities
  • Slow learner, mentally handicapped, differently abled → cognitive disabilities, developmental disabilities
  • TT/TTD → TTY (to refer to the telecommunication device)

To opt to use these words in place of others: that is the power of prescriptive terminology. It forces us to reckon with the ways in which we have been less than inclusive and helps us make better choices in our writing—choices that will help render our writing more inclusive for people of all backgrounds. 

Microsoft does not, however, prohibit the use of certain ability-specific verbs, such as see, read, or look, when calling out an example. 


AI and bot terms

Strangely enough, Microsoft recommends writers to “avoid talking about AI and bot technology”: strange, coming from a company that champions AI and bot technology. The issue is mainly with the perception of AI—it’s vague and scientific and comes off as foreign and unfamiliar for many people. Furthermore, given the short history of the field of AI, writers are more liable to create new terms for unfamiliar technological concepts. 

Here are some examples of AI- and bot-related concepts whose usage is clarified and defined by the Microsoft Style Guide:

  • AI: the guide discourages the spelled-out form, artificial intelligence, although the words intelligent and intelligence can be used to talk about the benefits of AI.
  • bot, chatbot, virtual agent: bot refers to “an app that performs automated tasks or engages with humans through a conversational interface.”
  • intelligent technology: Microsoft only advises using the term intelligent technology in UI contexts to describe underlying technology powering AI features. Smart technology as a phrase should not be used.


Cloud-computing terms

The cloud—as in cloud computing—is one of those black-box concepts: people understand their use in real life but don’t know quite how it works. The field of cloud computing is always evolving, and keeping up with standardized terminology is important to avoid confusion. As a company that develops much cloud-computing software and services, Microsoft is very particular about what phrases and words make the cut and which ones don’t.

  • cloud, the cloud: cloud shouldn’t be capitalized except when it’s part of a product name. Furthermore, cloud should be used mostly as an adjective, as in cloud computing or cloud services.
  • infrastructure as a service (IaaS): Microsoft recommends that writers “use [this term] for technical audiences only.” When first mentioned, it should be spelled out and followed by the abbreviation in parenthesis; afterward, it can be used in its abbreviated form, which is IaaS, not IAAS. No hyphens.

A lot of the cloud-computing terms tend to be technical, and writers who aren’t familiar with these concepts might take creative liberties with terminology, perhaps using community cloud as a synonym of hybrid cloud or private cloud, when the style guide explicitly states: “never use.”


Computer and device terms

Unlike cloud-computing terms—which are difficult and therefore confusing—computer and device terms are confusing for the opposite reason: verbal and colloquial variance due to frequent use. For example, you can say power on as a synonym for switch on and turn on, although the style guide only approves of turn on as the proper verb phrase for starting a device. The style guide also differentiates between set up and install: set up is “preparing hardware or software for first use,” whereas install refers to “adding… hardware drivers and apps.”

This computer and device term collection is intriguing at the very least; it puts an end to much confusion surrounding spelling and usage of common household electronic devices. For example, according to the Microsoft Style Guide, adapter is the proper term, not adaptor. CDs and DVDs are discs, although Azure cloud storage and virtual machines employ disks in their systems. Display is the “general term for any visual output device,” and screen is “the usable portion of the display from its edges,” whereas monitor only refers specifically to “a standalone desktop or mounted display device.” 

At some point, the guide gives up, particularly for words such as drive, which is very multifold in its meaning and hence confusing in certain contexts. 

Use drive as the general term for any type of device where a customer can save or retrieve files, including hard drive, CD drive, DVD drive, USB flash drive, or any other removable storage device. Use hard drive when necessary to refer to a drive on a PC where programs are typically stored. Avoid referring to the type of drive if you can.


Date and time terms

Microsoft, being an American company, follows the month-day-year format that so many people abhor, but what can we say? 

Aside from that controversy, the Microsoft Style Guide’s date and time term collection has numerous insightful formatting recommendations. For example, “midnight is the beginning of the new day, not the end of the old one,” a tidbit of information many don’t know. The guide also specifies that the ratio symbol Unicode 2236 should be used as the delimiter between hours, minutes, and seconds, rather than the standard colon. The difference? “A standard colon is baseline aligned, the ratio symbol, on the other hand, is vertically centered between the baseline and cap-height.” 

The difference between a ratio symbol and a colon.


Keys and keyboard shortcuts

Have you ever tried explaining to a computer-illiterate person how to navigate a website or recover their password? If you have—even if you haven’t—you’ll know the difficulty of explaining, verbally or in writing—which keys to press, in which combination, in what order.

Microsoft’s keyboard action term collection is the largest by date, perhaps because of this reason. There are numerous ways to say the same thing, and this creates much confusion on the part of the reader or listener. Do access key and keyboard shortcut mean the same thing? What about key combination? Is Alt, as in the Alt key, capitalized? Do we spell out the @ sign? Do we refer to # as the pound key, or maybe a hashtag? 

Take the term select, for example. People often use the following verbs as an alternative to the term select: press, depress, hit, strike, and use. As a solution, the Microsoft Style Guide prescribes the following guidelines:

Use select to describe pressing a key on a physical or on-screen keyboard. Don’t use press, depress, hit, or strike. 

Don’t use depressed to describe an indented toolbar button unless you have no other choice.

Use use when select might be confusing, such as when referring to the arrow keys or function keys and select might make customers think that they need to select all the arrow keys. 

Use use when multiple platform or peripheral choices initiate the same action or actions within a program.

Use select and hold only if a delay is built into the software or hardware interaction. Don’t use select and hold when referring to a mouse button unless you’re teaching beginning skills.


If you’re curious about other usage prescriptions or general principles in tech writing, the Microsoft Style Guide has all the information you need to get you on track. Come back for the next part in our Microsoft Style Guide special, where we cover all the interesting and useful information the guide has to offer. If you’re curious about how Sprok DTS uses the Microsoft Style Guide in its translation and localization, visit our website today and take a look at the wide variety of language services we provide.

Our translators and localization experts here at Sprok DTS are knowledgeable in various styles of writing, the Microsoft Style Guide included. Ask for a free quote for your next translation or localization project on our website.