Why Texts are so Difficult to Understand ~ a Tennis Example

Jan   Vanthienen
Jan Vanthienen Professor in Information Management, K.U. Leuven Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Jan Vanthienen

Even a simple newspaper article is sometimes hard to understand.  The following fragment was taken from a Belgian sports newsletter, talking about Kim Clijsters' Tennis Ranking.  It shows how difficult it is to write text that is correct and easy to understand.  And these are only a few lines…

Kim Clijsters' Tennis Ranking

Belgium is a small country, but with a few superb exports, e.g., chocolate, beer, and female tennis players.  We confidently watch the adventures of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin on the tennis courts and are happy to read about it in the newspapers.

Here is a translated article from a sports site some time ago.  Many thanks to Christophe Mues for bringing it to my attention.

The article talks about the WTA rankings after a tournament, although I do not remember which one, but that is not really important.  Here is the text:

Kim Clijsters' Tennis Ranking

Clijsters becomes the world's number one if she reaches the final, OR If Davenport doesn't reach the final, OR Mauresmo doesn't win the tournament.

Lindsay Davenport stays number one if she wins the tournament AND Clijsters doesn't reach the final, OR she looses the final (against another player than Mauresmo) AND Clijsters looses in the semi-finals.

Amélie Mauresmo becomes number one if she wins the tournament and Clijsters looses in the quarter-finals.

Sounds clear, right?  What could be difficult about three simple paragraphs?  The text is not only hard to understand, it also contains a number of errors.

Why is this text so difficult?

A lot of procedures, policies, regulations, legal texts, manuals are written in the same way.  Why are they so difficult to understand and apply?

Is it because of the technical language, difficult terms, complex sentences? 

Can we simplify text by using less complex words and sentences?  Partly, but the real reason is different:  it is a matter of orientation.

Most text (including this example) is written in a conclusion-oriented way, indicating for each of the conclusions what the required preconditions are:

  • Clijsters becomes number one if …

  • Davenport stays number one if …

  • Mauresmo becomes number one if …

That is a nice way to specify the knowledge, but it is hard to validate and hard for the reader to apply the knowledge in a specific situation.  Usually the situation is even worse, because the text also contains exceptions, default conclusions, etc.

What the reader actually wants to know is condition oriented: if this and this is the current situation, what will be the conclusion.  But that is not easy to derive from the text.  In order to know this, the reader would have to play rule engine and apply the specification to a given situation.

Humans are bad business rule engines

Business rule engines are good at applying a set of rules to certain inputs and reaching a conclusion, but humans are not.

And that is exactly what the reader has to do when trying to understand and apply the article:  match the rules and premises, remember intermediate conclusions, keep track of matching rules, look for facts, etc.  Our memory stack is simply too small to bring this to a good end.

The validation perspective

The article is not only difficult to understand, it is also hard to know if the text is complete and consistent.[1]  If the original text is translated into a decision table (Figure 1), it is immediately clear that the text contains some inconsistencies (there can only be one number 1) and is not complete (what happens in column 8?).

Figure 1.  Validating the text


Text can be difficult to understand because it is often written in a conclusion-oriented way, while the reader expects a condition-oriented view.  In order to make this translation, humans would have to play rule engine, and they are not good at that.


[1]  J. Vanthienen, "50 Ways to Represent your Rule Sets," Business Rules Journal, Vol.  7, No.  1 (Jan.  2006), URL:  http://www.BRCommunity.com/a2006/b266.html  return to article

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Standard citation for this article:

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Jan Vanthienen , "Why Texts are so Difficult to Understand ~ a Tennis Example" Business Rules Journal Vol. 8, No. 5, (May 2007)
URL: http://www.brcommunity.com/a2007/b346.html

About our Contributor:

Jan   Vanthienen
Jan Vanthienen Professor in Information Management, K.U. Leuven

Jan Vanthienen is professor of information management at the Business Information Systems Group of KU Leuven (Belgium), where he is teaching and researching on business rules, processes and decisions. The area of business rules modeling, validation and verification, and decision modeling in the context of business process modeling has been his major area of research and expertise for many years. He is a regular speaker at BBC, where his nickname seems to be: not (just) the decision table guy.

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