Here’s part of an article in Ars Technica that brings up a point about writing style. I’ll make the words I want you to think about bold:
Our brains are apparently really good at divvying up heavy mental loads. In the decades since scientists started taking snapshots of our noggins in action, they’ve spotted dozens of distinct brain regions in charge of specific tasks, such as reading and speech. Yet despite documenting this delegation, scientists still aren’t sure exactly how slices of our noodle get earmarked for specific functions.
Three words for the same thing. Is this good or bad? That depends, and herein lies the point of this post.
- If you’re engaged in informal writing, especially writing meant to entertain, variety is good. In fact, it’s considered gauche to repeat a word. We look on repetition as due to lack of imagination or vocabulary, and it’s boring.
- But if you’re explaining something, use the same word for the same thing every time. The reader of technical material wants to know exactly what’s going on, and giving something more than one name obfuscates the meaning. Call it “the half-inch wrench” every time. Don’t sometimes call it “the spanner,” and see the next bullet:
- Beware of using pronouns. Pronouns are supposed to refer to the closest preceding noun, and it’s easy to accidentally refer to a word that’s farther away. For example, someone might write “Use the half-inch wrench to tighten the cap screw assembly, then put it down.” Put what down? The wrench or the assembly? Be explicit.
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Ambiguity is when something can be understood in more than one way. Ambiguity has its place in humor, when you are frequently led to expect one thing, and then something else happens. Puns rely on ambiguity by definition. Ambiguity belongs in poetry, which not infrequently means two or more things at once. Figures of speech are a type of ambiguity, where the surface meaning is understood not to be meant. You even find ambiguity in advertising, when they want to make you think the product is better than it is. (Sometimes it’s worse than mere ambiguity. Read this article about deliberate obfuscation called Dark Patterns.
I leave it as an exercise for the reader to come up with examples of these. (Some will be trivial, some you might have to think about for a while.) Okay, here’s one example, from my good buddies, Frank and Ernest:
But in expository writing, when you’re explaining something, you want to avoid ambiguity as much as you can. My first rule of good writing is to be clear. (This and the other four are in the essay I mention in the right margin.) Work hard to avoid being misunderstood. Ponder how what you write might be misinterpreted. Get someone to read the material. The rule is that when you have someone read what you wrote, if they get something wrong, the problem is in the writing. That’s why editors are so valuable. I have a related rule that I post on my wall:
Bad writing must never be justified with the claim that the reader will figure it out.
This policy of getting someone else to read your stuff is more important than you might think. I read a Scientific American article recently that called to mind the trickiness of removing ambiguity all by yourself. Look at this sign:
Being a bicycle sympathizer, this ambiguity never occurred to me: Is it telling drivers to watch out for bikes, or is it reminding bicyclists that they don’t own the road? Apparently enough drivers thought the sign was telling bicyclists to stay out of the way that transportation departments are putting up signs that say something like “Bicyclists may use full lane.” The article also mentioned that some people interpret the phrase “antibiotic resistance” to mean one’s body becoming resistant to the curative effects of antibiotics instead of germs resisting the lethal effects of antibiotics on themselves. Read the article to find out how the medical community is being encouraged to get around this one.
Here’s the point: Do everything you can to prevent misunderstanding: proofread, try to think of ways to get it wrong, and have another person read your writing.
Do I make myself clear???
One principle of expository writing is that it be clear. This means, partly, that you can immediately tell what each word means. Many many words have more than one meaning, so you have to be careful if you want to be clear.
If you want to be funny, though (an antithesis, perhaps, of writing clearly) these multiple-meaning words provide a font of material. Here’s a comic, Fox Trot, that makes passing reference to correct use of case (I/me) but uses two words ambiguously to create humor. Can you tell what the two words are?
It occurred to me that a third word, “English,” could also have two meanings—the country or the language. (Snicker.)
This comic,um, literally addresses an issue I mentioned not so long ago, so I won’t go into that. It also addresses another issue–linguistic change. As a technical writer, I am tempted to wish that language didn’t change. Eliminating the ambiguity of having new meanings for words would certainly make it easier to be understood. I think this is the rationale for the French Academy, which is infamous for its insistence that the French language not change.
But language has to change over time. After all, the world changes over time. New ideas mean neologisms (and if you know what neologism means, I don’t need to explain this to you). A principle in linguistics is that all languages are sufficient. That is, for their environment. A corollary of this is that when something new comes along, we make or borrow a word for it.
Language also changes for less justifiable reasons, and that’s what makes me roll my curmudgeonly eyes.
Let’s look at the comic, from January 17, 2014:
Definition creep is a neologism, by the way, derived perhaps, from “scope creep,” a term you hear too often in software development circles. The comic dances around the point, dear to my heart, that if you mush around the meanings, you can lose the use of perfectly good words. If if “literal” and “figurative” both mean “figurative,” how can you say that something is literal? Here’s another example: nauseous means “making one want to throw up,” and nauseated means feeling like throwing up. Both ideas are useful (in the right context), so don’t make both words mean the same thing.
We’re going to lose a lot of these battles, but I recommend that when you write, you exercise care to use the right word. In fact, here’s some evidence that we’re going to lose the nauseous/nauseated battle. The character speaking in the center panel is one of the intellectuals in the Luann Strip (Nov 9, 1998).
On the other hand, perhaps Greg Evans has already gone over to the dark side. This one is from 1992.
One last comment: Note that the guy on the left in Basic Instructions said “…in a recent dictionary.” It’s been a running battle in the lexicographical world whether dictionaries should prescribe the “correct” meaning, or merely describe what people are saying, without casting judgement. Currently the trend is toward being merely descriptive. Alas.
A recent article in The Register criticized Google’s Eric Schmidt for, among other things, his (lack of) ability as a technical writer. Since this blog is mainly about expository writing, of which technical writing is a subset, I feel a need to share. Here’s the passage I’m referring to:
…Schmidt goes on to show he’s not conversant with the gentle art of technical writing with procedures that use inconsistent verbs, fail to open each step of a procedure with an active verb and make assumptions that lead to user-befuddling ambiguities.
Gentle art, eh? I’m flattered. Eric’s instructions are too long to quote here (you can find a link them in the article), but the criticisms mentioned in the quote above are worth noting for your own writing.
Inconsistent verbs…active verb. I’m not sure what the writer is referring to here, but when you write instructions, you should use the imperative. Do not say “Please.” Give one instruction per step. Tell the result of following the instruction correctly. (Do not write the result as a separate step!)
User-befuddling ambiguities. Ambiguity is the bane of technical writing. You should write so your material is interpreted exactly one way. Have someone follow your instructions. If they get something wrong, fix the writing. Do not whack the person upside the head for being stupid.
Tech writing has a lot more features, and I saw several other tech writing mistakes in Eric’s material, but I won’t go into them here.
Now in Eric’s defense, he is not a technical writer. He’s an extremely successful businessman with lots of money. (Warning: shameless plug ahead) If his intent is to write a good set of instructions (and not a marketing piece disguised as tech writing) maybe he should hire (ahem) a good technical writer to write the instructions for him.