A Manual on How To Read The Manual

Sometimes it’s very hard to put a thought into clear English, as the following courtroom example illustrates:
By Attorney: When he went – had you gone – and had she – if she wanted to and were able, for the time being excluding all the restraints on her not to go – gone also – would he have brought you – meaning you and she – with him to the station?
By Opposing Counsel: Objection, your Honor! That question should be taken out and shot!

A recent press release from Microsoft said that they had enhanced the reduced functionality mode of Windows. Come again? Does that mean they reduced it more, or reduced it less? This sort of dysfunctional thinking permeates a lot of writing, and product owner’s manuals are no exception.


A lot of manuals are written by only two kinds of people: Engineers that know everything about the product, but can’t explain it in plain English, or professional writers that have a great command of the language, but know nothing about the product. Either way, you’re up the creek, especially since you probably need the manual just to set the clock. While it’s impossible to make the incomprehensible comprehensible, a few techniques may help.


  • Read the entire manual first (Just the English part will do). This is a great way to while away an hour in the bathroom. If the manual is on a CD, forget the bathroom part.
  • Now, read the part pertaining to what you want to do, while in front of the device, and follow the steps as you read them. If the manual is on a CD, print the important parts.
  • Be patient. Some chores, such as programming a Universal Remote Control, can be time consuming. Get comfortable.
  • Use bookmarks and highlighters on important parts.
  • Some manuals are written to cover several models of a product. Make sure you’re reading the part that corresponds to your model.
  • If you don’t understand what the manual is telling you, go back to the beginning of that Chapter. Sometimes the basics are only explained at the beginning.
  • If you don’t understand some bit of terminology, look for a glossary in the back. If there is no glossary, look it up in an online dictionary, or use Google.
  • Look for other paperwork in the box that might clarify things. The manufacturer will often print last minute changes on an easily lost slip of paper. Staple these into the owner’s manual if you find any.
  • If you lose the owner’s manual, most well-known manufacturers make these available on their websites as free downloads. If that doesn’t work, do a Google search for “Make, Model, Owners Manual.” If that doesn’t turn it up, you may have to buy one on eBay, or figure it out on your own.

You can also pose a specific question in Google and often get an answer. Questions such as “Change optical input to TV Panasonic SCR-220” are good. Use the make and model in your Google look-up or you’ll be swamped with useless information. Most of the information obtained in this manner will be in forums. These are written by other users such as yourself, so use some common sense about following their advice. It may not be entirely accurate.
Don’t be afraid to be creative, but heed all warnings in the manual carefully. For instance, you might be able to change a DVD player to PAL TV mode, but now you can’t see the picture, so you can’t even change it back!
Look under “Support” on the manufacturer’s website for changes and updates to the owner’s manual. Manufacturers often have their own forums where owner’s questions are answered.
Sometimes you will find (Surprise!) a mistake in the manual. If this happens, write yourself a note on that page for next time. You can use a Post-It note if you don’t want to write on the manual.