Anthropomorphism in Technical Writing

rogersgeorge on June 12th, 2017

A while back I wrote a series of posts on figures of speech. Figures of speech are ways of playing fast and loose with the language, on purpose, and managing to be understood when you do so. Someone (Hi, Sara) asked me to write about anthropomorphism, a figure of speech you don’t generally find in technical writing. Technical writing is supposed to be as direct and plain as possible.

Anthropomorphism is attributing animal (or inanimate) characteristics to humans (You lucky duck, you) or human characteristics to animals (or inanimate things), such as when you draw a comic with talking animals. Ahem:

Does this figure of speech have a place in technical writing? Perhaps, if it’s the best way to make an obscure point clear. Abstruse subjects can be made easier to understand with an illustration, an analogy, and that illustration could, sometimes, be an anthropomorphism.

I run into this a lot in the field of computing. We say computers think, have memory, and want things. A message recently popped up on my screen saying that a website wanted to know my location. Pure anthropomorphism! More than one mathematician has said that an asymptote (look it up) is a line that wants to approach something but never quite can. I’ve heard genuine astronomers refer to the man in the moon, an image of a face. As luck would have it, I just ran into this passage from a Scientific American article:

When I look at the Moon I see the history of our planet engraved on its pale grey surface. I have to see something, I still can’t make out this “man” you tell me about.

I suppose I could include an anthropomorphism that goes the other way. The first thing that came to mind was the title of an old hymn, Rock of Ages.

Now that you’ve seen a few examples, keep your eye open for this figure of speech in technical subjects. If you think of or notice a good one, share it in the comments.

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Portmanteau Words

rogersgeorge on May 22nd, 2017

Seems to me I mentioned these guys recently, but I’m too lazy to do a big search for my post about them (I think it was a post about buzzwords). Besides, this Dagwood oops Blondie comic is a good example of these words.

A portmanteau is an old kind of suitcase, usually made of leather, and usually with some kind of straps. You put unrelated things inside, hence the analogy with portmanteau words, parts of unrelated words put together into one word.

Blondie - 05/16/2017

“Ever-popular” is just a plain old compound adjective.

Enormity

rogersgeorge on May 20th, 2017

I mentioned enormity a while back, as a word that most people get wrong. Here’s someone who gets it correct!

In case you didn’t see that earlier post, “enormity” means extremely bad, not extremely big.

And here’s a more serious example of getting enormity right. It’s from This Day in History for May 11.

Still, many in the crowd did not realize the enormity of the disaster. Some young fans reportedly danced and sang in front of the raging fire while others threw stones at a television crew.

 

Tesla Gets Comprise Right

rogersgeorge on May 16th, 2017

This is part of a strip about Nikola Tesla, quoting part of his autobiography. Follow the link to see the whole thing. Yes, I have a thing about getting “comprise” right (see the text at the bottom of the picture), but I recommend Zen Pencils anyhow because it’s a good, often inspirational comic. Go poke around the site.

Malaprops

rogersgeorge on May 12th, 2017

Easy post today. Jim Scanarelli must save these up to fit so many into one Gasoline Alley strip. It’s at http://www.gocomics.com/gasolinealley/2017/04/28

Most places I’ve seen the term written as “malapropism,” but the first time I saw it, the word was “malaprop,” and I like that word better. The longer word sounds pretentious. The term comes from a Dickens novel that had a Mrs. Malaprop, who got a lot of her words humorously wrong.