Reading Everyday Words 1: An Earplug Leaflet

9 December 2010

It’s surprising how much we can discuss even the most mundane texts. In these posts, ‘Reading Everyday words’, I take a short, non-fiction document – a leaflet, or a manual – and discuss how it does and doesn’t work.

Struggling with a noisy housemate, I bought a box of earplugs. This box held ten, delicately-positioned wax-and-cotton cylinders, interwoven with a sliver of paper, an instructional leaflet.

Here’s an excerpt:


Disposable ear plugs in accordance with standard EN 352-2 : 1993


– Soften the plug by rolling between the fingers and shape into a cone.

– Insert a plug firmly into each ear

Average weight: 2.10g

To ensure optimum performance, take care to position the ear plug correctly.

Noise reduction values:

[provides an F-shaped table of Decibel figures and their test source]

Please follow the recommendations given below:

– The ear plugs should be inserted, positioned and worn following the manufacturer’s recommendations

– The ear plugs may be worn constantly in noisy environments.

– Check the ear plugs regularly to ensure they are suitable for use.

– Keep in a cool, dry place below 25°C.

– Keep the ear plugs in their box prior to use.

– These plugs are designed for single use only.

– Keep out of the reach of children.

We can say much about this apparently mundane scrap of paper:

  1. What’s going on with formatting in this leaflet? Formatting gives readers visual clues relating to the text’s structure, and each piece’s function. This texts marks up headers and section titles in either bold or capital-bold, but applies similar formatting to a piece of trivia (the average weight of an earplug). This means I can’t trust these emboldened titles as navigational guides.
  2. The description (Disposable ear plugs…) is rather strange. As a consumer, don’t I already know I’ve bought ear plugs? And does the EN-353-2 really sit on my bedside table? Presumably, this product is repackaged for an industrial audience – at some point, a company will verify they’ve bought something that ticks their compliance boxes.
  3. The syntax of the first Direction (‘Soften the plug by ____. Then insert into the ear’) is odd. It’s more common to describe the ‘end’ or ‘object’ of a task before the action. The idea is that readers can follow your instructions better if they’re given a sense of what each action ultimately leads to. We’ll talk about this next time. That said, users might recognize these rock-solid little cylinders as ordinary earplugs (they’re the same shape), and expect to push them right into the ear. Starting with ‘Soften’ instantly satisfies the confused and concerned user who takes one and finds it too hard to just shove into the head.
  4. Various factoids are all listed as ‘recommendations’ (many, strictly speaking, aren’t). The title is verbose (wouldn’t “We recommend:” do?) and there’s no real classification or organization of the data provided. Important advice (‘these plugs are designed for single use’) mixes with material that readers just aren’t going to care about (‘Check the ear plugs regularly). The result’s an amorphous mass of information that readers will just write off as trivia.

Who would have thought a little leaflet could be so involving?

Think I’m being unfair? Make yourself heard in the comments below!