AMITIAE - Monday 28 March 2016

Cleartext: Basic Text Editor with 1,000-word Vocabulary Limit

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Looking through a number of links this morning, I found an article by Paul Horowitz on OS X Daily that outlines a basic text editor: Cleartext. I urge you to read his article that explains the values of Cleartext and the way it limits writers to a 1,000 word vocabulary, thus ensuring simplicity and - far more important to my mind - clarity.

I teach writing (among other communication skills) at a university in Thailand, where everyone is an expert on teaching English except the English teacher. I am often asked to edit papers. That is only right: writers need to know that the work is of a good enough quality to publish and many recognise they need guidance. I just finished one on ISFET readout circuits, for example.

I have problems with some of these as the writers seem more intent on impressing readers than putting over ideas in a way that can be easily understood. This is not a call for dumbing down, but for less obfuscation: a word that Cleartext will highlight. Better that I use "clarity" again.

When editing, there are a number of fixes I usually have to make, starting with fractured grammar. Most errors in this field are caused by translation: no two languages have identical structures, so A into B won't go. With Thai, direct translation will sometimes produce a sentence (in English) that is several lines long with five or six verbs and too many conjunctions or links (e.g. the pronoun, "that"). In my own mind I insert (or remove) punctuation and play about with possibilities within the context of the article to improve the grammar while still keeping the original writer's flavour.

Another major problem comes from vocabulary choices. This includes prepositions and other words, due to mis-translations; but a large part of my trying to understand the articles I am editing, comes from the use of long words: why use one syllable when four will do?

All of my students are engineers and, to me, that suggests a need not for simplicity: understanding. Early software manuals, created by the developers often failed because the writers could either not understand the position of a novice user or used obscure vocabulary. Many words in the papers I edit come straight from a translation dictionary. Decisions on which to use are based on: the first word in the definition; or the longest word.

Cleartext limits the writer's choice with a vocabulary of 1,000 words. That is a fair level for undergraduate students and imposes the sort of control that they need, particularly for early drafts. There are six input types: Danish, English, XKCD, Jobs (Steve Jobs), Hemingway and Dutch. Having produced a result from this utility, there is nothing to stop a writer changing the words later, but this may be a good starting point for some.


I decided to put the 6 paragraphs above into Cleartext, but because some of the words are complex, when it is pasted in (Copy/Paste), the entire selection is highlighted. This is better therefore as a basic writing tool and not a resource for analysis. As can be seen above, I typed in the first paragraph for basic feedback.

There is an alternative. I initially downloaded the wrong file from Github (Cleartext), but in a readme was a link to an online resource, XKCD. The results are not the same as with Cleartext, but can still guide a writer.


The Simple Writer tool highlights words that may need changing in red. In a split-screen, it also provides a list of the suspect words. Obviously, some may be ignored (in both Cleartext and Simple Writer) - names, URLs, countries - but like Cleartext gives a good starting point for those who value simple writing and are not prone to floccinaucinihilipilification.

See Also:

Michael Hitzlik

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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