Posted by: episystechpubs | July 8, 2014

Editor’s Corner: Question from reader about capability vs. ability

Dear Editrix,

Can you cover the difference between ability and capability? I often see these used in technical documentation. For example:

· Our users have the ability to process transactions.

· Our users have the capability to process transactions.

Thanks!

Ready, Willing, and Able in a San Antonio Stable

Dear RWASAS,

You have raised an interesting question and I have several things to say about those examples.

1) They are overly wordy.

2) They are very typical in the technical documentation world.

3) I think there are more appropriate ways to communicate the message.

First, here are some definitions from Merriam-Webster:

· ability (noun)

1: the quality or state of being able: physical, mental, or legal power to perform: competence in doing: skill

2: natural talent or acquired proficiency especially in a particular work or activity: aptitude

· capability (noun)

1: the quality or state of being capable physically, intellectually, morally, or legally: capacity, ability

Now, let’s look back at the examples:

· Our users have the ability to process transactions.

· Our users have the capability to process transactions.

What are we telling the reader? We are telling them, as users of our product, they have the skill and aptitude (ability) to use the product. How would we know? Better to focus on the product. (See bullets below.)

The same goes for capability. Are we telling the reader that people using our products are physically or mentally able to use our products? Again, I don’t think that is the message.

Try these on for size:

· Users can process transactions with Product X. (too passive)

· Use Product X to process transactions. (direct, to the point) Yay!

Sometimes it is best to focus on the main point of the sentence and rewrite it to get your idea across.

Sincerely,

Editrix

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