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.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

Beware Idioms and Figures of Speech

rogersgeorge on March 24th, 2017

If you’ve read more than about three articles on this site, you know that I promulgate expository writing, writing designed to convey information so readers absorb the information effortlessly. (Promulgate means to set forth or teach publicly, but you knew that, right?)

Sometimes idioms and figures of speech can be taken literally, and this generally doesn’t promote understanding. Here’s a Gasoline Alley; the first two rows give a humorous take on this danger.

(The last row repeats a joke that has to be more than 50 years old, but I digress.)

Rule of thumb: When you explain something, be direct and literal.

A related situation is when you write something that will or might be translated. Idioms and figures of speech are notorious for causing problems in other languages. This goes both ways, so be careful when you read something translated into English. Google “badly translated into English” to find some humorous examples, but this can be a serious problem if the writing is about a serious subject. So be careful.

Another Figure of Speech

rogersgeorge on March 2nd, 2017

Some time ago I posted a series about figures of speech, which I invite you to check out if you like. Recently I ran into another figure of speech, called paraprosdokian. It’s Greek for something like “given against and alongside.”

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is unexpected and oft times very humorous.

I got a list of them from a contributor to a motorcycle enthusiast list I belong to. (Thank you, Joe Dille, for sharing.) I’m sorry, I don’t know where he got the list.

Here are a few:

–     If I had a dollar for every girl that found me unattractive, they’d eventually find me very attractive.
–     A man knocked on my door and asked for a small donation toward the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.
–     My wife and I were happy for twenty years; then we met.
–     Hospitality is the art of making guests feel like they’re at home when you wish they were.
–     Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.
–     He who laughs last thinks slowest.
–     Women sometimes make fools of men, but most guys are the do-it-yourself type.
–     If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.
–     Sometimes I wake up grumpy; other times I let her sleep.
–     Money is the root of all wealth.

If you’re brave, see if you can think up a few and share in the comments.

PS. Wouldn’t you know, I just ran into an example of paraprosdokian in a comic, Moderately Confused by Jeff Stahler: