Language: word choice in technical writing

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​You are expected to use words that are:​

This means they need to:

Examples

Clear

Lack ambiguity

Consider the following sentences: ​

The lab manager had to lower the temperature as the experiment was progressing.

(In this example, “as" is used to mean “because," but it can be easily mistaken to mean “while." Replacing “as" with “because" eliminates ambiguity.)


Because the linear actuator controlled the opening and closing of the valve, it was designed based on DIN 3358.

(In this example, “it" refers to the “valve," but it can be easily mistaken to refer to the “actuator." Replacing “it" with “the latter" or simply “which was designed…" eliminates ambiguity.)​

Be defined

To avoid confusion about what technical terms mean, define such terms according to the following formula:

Technical term category + explanation.

Tensile strength is the capacity of a material or structure to withstand loads tending to elongate it.

Lack complexity (jargon-free)

Compare the following explanations of Shear Strength tests: 

Shear strength is the capacity of a material to withstand loads that tend to produce a sliding failure along a plane on a material. Ductile materials are preferred because they are able to withstand significant deformation.

(Some aspects of this explanation are complex, such as “produce a sliding failure along a plane on a material.")


Shear strength tests determine the failure type –either brittle or ductile – of the specimen tested. While ductile failures occur slowly and lead to significant deformation in the specimen, brittle failures occur abruptly with little to no deformation in the material. Ductile specimen can thus be twisted before fractures (failure) occur. Additionally, the fracture plane (i.e. where the specimen breaks) occurs where the torsion/twisting stress is applied.

(This is a more efficient explanation of the tests. Notice how the occurrence of complex words (jargon) is minimized and whenever technical words are used, they are explained using simple terms.)

​Precise

Mean exactly what is intended by the author

Consider the following sentences: 

Please send a very detailed report.
After recognizing some problems with the code, we took subsequent measures.

(“Very detailed," “some problems," and “subsequent measures" are not precise terms and may be interpreted differently by different readers.)

Avoid inaccurate and flowery language

Ambient lightening of the tunnel will remove the oppressive feeling that drivers had experienced with the earlier design.

(In this case, the metaphor is used to mean “dark." However, this meaning may not be understood by all readers.)

Be as specific as needed, not more

The sample included 63,940,334,323 molecules of CO2.

(Too much specificity can overwhelm readers. For instance, “the sample included about 64 trillion molecules of CO2" can be more easily understood.)

Take into account word denotations (dictionary meaning) and connotations (meaning in context)

 

Consider the following sentences:

The design uses cheap material.
The design uses inexpensive material.

The design uses cost-effective material.

 (Although “cheap," “inexpensive," and “cost-effective" mean “low in price," each word has a different implication. “Cheap" may be understood to mean that something is not only low in price, but that also its quality is low. “Inexpensive" has a more neutral meaning in that it does not imply that the quality is good or bad. “Cost-effective" implies that the quality is very high relative to the cost.) ​

Avoid absolute terms


Consider the following sentences:

This landfill will ensure the intake of all wastes produced by the city over the next 50 years. 

This landfill will accommodate the estimated wastes to be produced by the city over the next 50 years.

(Absolute terms, such as “always," “never," and “guarantee," rarely indicate the right level of uncertainty. In the first example above, “ensure" indicates full certainty that the landfill will accommodate all wastes produced in the next 50 years. The second example, on the other hand, explains that the landfill will work based on the expected wastes that are estimated by the designeres, which is a more precise statement.)​

​​Concise


Avoid unnecessarily long words

 

Consider the following words:

familiarization, has the functionality, has the operationability, firstly, secondly, etc.

(Such words are unnecessarily long and complex. Because technical writing includes complex technical terminology, make sure the rest of the words used are concise.)​

Formal

Avoid informal and unprofessional language

Technical writing should not include:

Contractions (won't, can't, shouldn't, etc.)
Phrasal verbs (come up with, got over, mixed up, wrap up)
Slang and clichés (a lot of, piece of cake, bucks)
First person pronouns (especially “I")​

(The above list includes examples of informal language. Such language gives your text an unprofessional tone.)
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