Metaphor in technical writing

rogersgeorge on February 22nd, 2012

In the most general sense, a figure of speech is when you do something artistic with your writing. You’re probably familiar with alliteration and onomatopoeia, but how about synecdoche? (Look it up. You use it.)

I generally recommend a writing style that doesn’t call attention to the writing itself, so conspicuous figures of speech are generally not a good idea. The less technical your writing is, the more you can get away with using figures of speech. They add color and interest to the writing; make it a little more fun to read.

Metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things by saying that one thing is the other. A post a while back contained a lot of metaphors. You learn about metaphor in grade school, usually with its cousin, the simile, which compares to things by saying that one thing is like the other. (“My love is like a red, red rose…”)

Normally you won’t find it a good idea to use metaphors in technical writing. You should stick to the literal truth, the plain facts. Metaphors can confuse the issue but bringing in extraneous concepts. Recently I read a book that was on a technical subject, but it was addressed to a lay readership, and the introduction was the perfect place for the author to use a couple of metaphors to make his description of his subject more vivid. The book is about anthrozoology, the study of how humans relate with animals. The title of the book is Some we Love, Some we Hate, and Some we Eat. It’s a pretty interesting read, and you can click the link to go to Amazon to get it. Here are the metaphors:

“How much money are you giving out?” I ask. Two and a half million dollars a year, she says. “Fantastic! This is just what the field needs,” I say. I am thinking that Layla is going to have a very full dance card for the next couple of days.

Anthrozoology is a big tent. It includes the study of nearly all aspects of out interactions with other species.

As academic disciplines go, anthrozoology is a small pond, but in the last two decades, we have come a long way.

Those quotes contain four metaphors. Can you find them all? The fourth one is so common you might not notice it.

I try to find an excuse to put up pictures, so here’s what the cover looks like:

Sorry about the arrow; Amazon will be Amazon.

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