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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The Difference between Both and Either

rogersgeorge on October 15th, 2016

A quickie today, unless I find a suitable comic…

Both of these words generally apply to two entities, but they don’t quite mean the same thing. Here’s a good sentence describing the difference:

You may have either one, but not both.

Occasionally I read someone who was careless and get the words reversed.

Scientific American got it right on page 16 of the October 2016 issue:

Do we live in a universe where each discovery leads to deeper, more fundamental insights, or do we live in one where some parts have rhyme and reason, but others don’t? Dark matter offers either possibility.

You could plug “both possibilities” into that second sentence and it might feel okay because we don’t know dark matter’s role. But the author is deliberately making a subtle point: Dark matter leads to one or the other, but not both.

Remember that distinction.

A nice Correct Adjective

rogersgeorge on August 25th, 2016

A quickie post today. I occasionally bemoan the use of introductory adverbs when you want adjectives. You know, using “hopefully” to start a sentence. So it’s nice when I find some writing that doesn’t make this common mistake. This one is from a Scientific American article about tigers (the bold is my emphasis):

Over the next six years radiotelemetry revealed the nuances of tiger behavior by enabling me to spend less time searching blindly for tigers and more time observing them. More important, this approach exposed where the cats wandered.

Yay! He didn’t write “More importantly.”

Don’t you, either!

PS—I ran into this very mistake today, in a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction:

Most importantly, they’d recovered a few dozen wheels. A wheel could be a gear, or part of a pulley, or a component in a steam engine.

PPS—While I’m at it, here’s an article that didn’t beg the question:

Juno is also the first solar-powered spacecraft to explore the outer planets, which raises the question: why solar power?

Abbreviations and Acronyms

rogersgeorge on August 3rd, 2016

I ran into a Sentence in Scientific American that caught my attention because it contains a new word, sort of. It’s an acronym, GLOF, but you pronounce it like a word. Here’s the sentence:

GLOFs have wrecked havoc in the past.

Of course, the article defined the term as glacial lake outburst flood, referring to when a lake in a stream fed by a glacier bursts its downstream dam and floods the valley below. As glaciers melt faster, the streams get bigger and sometimes overwhelm their watercourses. But that’s not what this post is about.

Acronym rules of thumb:

  • Acronyms stand for more than one word, abbreviations are shortened versions of single words.
  • Acronyms usually have periods if you pronounce each letter separately. (He works for the S.E.C.) But see the last bullet…
  • If it’s an acronym, don’t put spaces between the letters.
  • Don’t use periods if you pronounce the acronym as a word. (I’m a fan of NASA)
  • If the acronym is common enough, you can leave off the periods even though you still say the letters. (I live in the USA.)
  • Don’t use periods if the acronym uses more than just the initial letters. These usually get treated as words anyway—the extra letters are to make it pronounceable. (This army guy works for COMSEC.)
  • The language is moving in the direction of eliminating the periods even if the acronym isn’t particularly common.

PS (Postscript): That quoted sentence contains a solecism. The word shouldn’t be “wrecked,” it should be “wreaked.” Look it up.

More who-whom trickiness

rogersgeorge on February 2nd, 2014

I’ve brought up the subject of correct use of who and whom several times in this blog. (Do a search on the words in the field to the right and you’ll find several.) Here’s another situation that’s easy to get wrong, especially if you’re used to using whom after a preposition, which is usually correct. First the quote, from This Day in History for January 11:

In the first flight of its kind, American aviator Amelia Earhart departs Wheeler Field in Honolulu, Hawaii, on a solo flight to North America. Hawaiian commercial interests offered a $10,000 award to whoever accomplished the flight first.

What’s that who(ever) doing after the preposition “to”? Shouldn’t it be “whomever”? Nope! Here’s why: Prepositions take an object, which is a noun or pronoun—or a noun clause, which we have here. See that verb (accomplished)? Verbs need subjects, and that’s where the “whoever” comes in. It’s the subject of the verb “accomplished.”  The whole noun clause is the object of “to.”  The rule with clauses is to go from the inside out, and since “whoever” is inside the clause, that takes precedence over being right after the preposition.

Here’s an example of how to do it wrong, from the February issue of Scientific American, no less. Page 18, if you want to find it yourself.

Authorities are concerned not just with the volume of the ivory trade, but with whom is doing the killing.

Watch out for those noun clauses and your writing will fly better.