If we follow plain language principles, we’ll be on the right path toward developing appropriate style habits for technical writing. While it may seem that we’ve covered all concerns one might have with language and sentence structure, we’ve still a few more considerations to keep in mind.

Special Stylistic Issues in Technical Writing

To become an effective technical stylist, you must understand some vital governing conventions. The lessons in this section are not binding restrictions on your style but opportunities to understand (and in some cases, debunk) some oft-repeated rules of professional communication. It is prudent to wield your creativity only within the rules in technical writing.

Eliminating Contractions

Contractions—in which an apostrophe is used to “contract” two words into one by joining parts—are considered informal, conversational expressions. In the formal writing that you do for your classes, or as you submit formal work for an editor’s or superior’s perusal, you do not have the option of using contractions unless you are quoting something that contains contractions. 

If you use contractions in formal writing, you may appear sloppy and unprofessional. The safest idea is to avoid them entirely. If you avoid contractions, you will discover that your writing becomes more emphatic and leans toward the active voice, so the benefits are multiple. Remember: in technical writing, apostrophes contracting two words (e.g., “it’s,” “they’ve,” “who’s”) signal that the two words can and should be written out separately.

Curbing Feelings and Personification

While scientists and engineers do, in fact, have feelings, the use of the word “feelings” or the verb “feel” in technical writing often leads the writer into trouble. Notice how these phrases can draw large frowns from your readers.

“I feel that the best answer is 3.2” or “we feel that this conclusion is correct”

“Feel” has emotional connotations, and feelings are not relevant to rational conclusions in your writing, at least not on the page. Also, the needless use of the term can lend the appearance of uncertainty, especially when applied to quantities or conclusions as it is above. In technical writing, a related issue is unintentional personification—i.e., assigning human traits to inanimate objects. Take a look at this example:

“when the drillstring feels the weight,” 

The seemingly literal claim that an inanimate object such as a drillstring “feels” anything is inaccurate. Similarly, let’s look at this sentence:

“Boeing stock enjoyed a 2% increase today” 

The implication from this sentence could imply that stocks have emotions. Although such a sentence may well appear in the daily newspaper, its tone would not suit a technical paper. In technical writing, avoid unintentional personification. (which is always revealed by the verb you use to express a noun’s action.)

Choosing Gender-Neutral Language

From a stylistic standpoint, one of the best things about the need for writers to choose gender-neutral language is that it forces them to explore the options that have always been available to them. Most students are aware that they should select gender-neutral language when writing and giving oral presentations. Still, if it just causes them to use “his/her” repeatedly, they are not living up to their obligations to keep their writing highly readable and efficient. Also, writing a sentence such as “Someone should lend their voice to this problem” is still grammatically unacceptable because “someone” is singular and “their” is plural. Most decent writers attack the problem in the following ways:

  • By simply being more specific or creative about word choice (writing “humans” rather than “man”).
  • By using plural nouns rather than singular ones when appropriate (“scientists” rather than “a scientist”), or by avoiding gender-specific pronouns (“the author” rather than “he”).
  • By writing “he or she” (not “he/she”) when it is not awkward or overly repetitive to do so.
  • By changing some words to other parts of speech, thereby avoiding gender-specific pronouns (“walking” might work better than “he walked” as long as the grammar of the revision is sound).
  • By alternating between using “he” and “she” (as I have done in this handbook), especially in longer pieces.

With these tactics in mind, consider the following example:

The consumer himself has the power to reduce fuel costs: If he sets his residential thermostat 2 degrees higher in the summer and 2 degrees lower in the winter, he saves energy.

In a revised version of this sentence, the gender-specific language of the original is avoided:

Consumers have the power to reduce fuel costs: By setting their residential thermostats 2 degrees higher in the summer and 2 degrees lower in the winter, they save energy.

In technical writing, we should be mindful and examine the way we unnecessarily include gender in our day-to-day language. If the gender isn’t important to the sentence, you can leave it out. Alternatively, the singular use of “they” has also become a gender-neutral option in casual conversation. While its use as a singular pronoun has been recognized by Merriam-Webster, for example, other academics and grammarians, such as the people who create the Chicago Manual of style, have yet to adopt its use as a singular pronoun. Remember, that our language is always in flux. You’ll find additional interesting articles on gender-neutral language, and other inclusive language choices, by reviewing the Conscious Style Guide.

This short (3:12) video touches on the basics of using gender-neutral language.

Keeping Jargon in its Place

Jargon, especially that which has grown out of computer usage, genuinely enriches our language. As technical communicators, we do not want to give it a bad rap. (Why not delight, for example, in jargon such as “debug,” “flame,” and “FUBAR”?) However, many professors and employers criticize the use of jargon (sometimes called “buzzwords” or “gobbledygook”), especially in formal writing, so you must understand how to recognize it and when it is unacceptable. Forms of jargon can range from: 

  • redundancy – (“red in color”)
  • overly formal wordiness – (using “at this point in time” rather than “currently”)
  • and specialized technical slang – (using “airplane rule” to describe the concept that greater complexity increases the likelihood of failure)

When jargon takes the form of redundancy and wordiness, simple editing is critical; when jargon becomes specialized slang, we must consider audience and context to decide on how much jargon is appropriate. A hip group of hackers might know that “angry fruit salad” refers to visual design that includes too many colors, but a general, educated audience would not.

When discerning whether to use jargon, employ the following principles:

  • When tempted toward a wordy construction or fancy word, elect the more straightforward wording or phrase (e.g., “today” rather than “in today’s modern society”; “sandy” rather than “arenaceous”).
  • When you feel jargon is necessary for speaking or writing, but your audience members might not understand it, explicitly define the terms you use (as I did in the previous paragraph) or explain terms by creating the context for them in the sentence.
  • Use technical slang, but do not overuse it, in presentations, in conversation with peers, in interviews, in e-mails and memos, and in cover letters, but only when your audience is sure to understand your meaning.

Using “I” and “We”—the First Person

First-person is a highly versatile point of view, and its limited scope makes it both a blessing and a curse. First-person is often used when the author wants to establish an emotional connection to the reader; however, in technical writing, displays of emotion can be perceived as inappropriate. Some exceptions make it acceptable despite what you may have heard in your introductory English courses about using first-person in technical writing. Addressing the issue here is not as simple as saying, “go ahead and use the first person freely.” But here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • You can use the first person in an abstract or introduction to stress the foundations of your particular approach, express authorial intentions, or emphasize your scientific convictions:
    • In this paper, I argue that . . .
    • In contrast to other authors, we conclude that . . .
  • When the first person does not suit you or your reader’s taste, you need to be self-referential, consider the common alternatives such as “this author,” “this paper.” However, keep in mind that these options can sound a bit stilted.
  • In memos, especially when they involve one-on-one communication between you and one other party, use the first person (and the word “you”) as needed, particularly in the introduction and conclusion.
  • Use the first person plural (“we”) when you wish to include the reader as part of a collective, thinking body:
    • We agree that something must be done about the quality of care in HMO programs.
  • Limit your use of the first person so that you do not create circumstances requiring you to use it repeatedly. For example, by convention, avoid using the first person in the “Experimental” section of a technical report—if you begin to use “we” in this section, you would continually have to repeat its use for consistency.
  • Be particularly cautious with first-person terms suggesting ownership—e.g., “my” and “our.” It would be awkward to write “I connected my patchcord” or “We closed our tank,” because the ownership issue is irrelevant to the science and interpretation.
  • By convention, you may use the first person plural (“we”) to introduce equations:
    • We can calculate the green densities of the pellets with the equation . . .

Considering what’s outlined above, recognize that some professors and editors will adamantly reject the use of first-person pronouns in technical writing.  

Writing with Infinitives—to Split or not to Split?

A split infinitive is a phrase in which one or more words are placed between the word “to” and its accompanying verb. “To boldly go” is a split infinitive (a famous one, in fact, even to non-Trekkies) because “boldly” is interrupting the more basic pattern “to go.” Split infinitives are pet peeves of many professors (and grammar checkers, too), so you must consider how you handle this issue. Read on:

The grammatical thorn that emerges when infinitives are split has to do with the concept of unit interruption. Our ears (and the “rules” of our language) prefer that specific units not be interrupted. For instance, for many writers, “have worked diligently” is more acceptable than “have diligently worked.” The verb “have worked” is not interrupted in the first instance. (Also, work in itself cannot be “diligent,” per se, and the phrasing “have diligently worked” could imply otherwise.) To dramatize the point further, consider the grave, incredibly annoying unit interruption in an incorrect phrase we have all heard: “a whole nother.” Now consider this sentence, which contains a split infinitive:

The plastic contains a catalyst that causes it to completely and naturally disappear in a few months.

In this sentence, some readers would insist that “to” and “disappear” are too far away from each other, in that their grammatical purpose here is to serve as one uninterrupted unit. A revised version of the sentence would bring together the two words in question, thus:

The plastic contains a catalyst that causes it to disappear completely and naturally in a few months.

Now, “completely and naturally” is more obviously describing the intact phrase, “to disappear.” As in this case, usually, the words that split an infinitive can go outside the infinitive or be omitted altogether.

Nevertheless, split infinitives appear in writing, and many writers (including me) find them acceptable as long as they are infrequent and do not disturb either sense or sound. At times, split infinitives are the most logical, euphonious choice:

After the mishap, he was encouraged to never report to work again.

It is comforting to finally understand differential equations.

The bottom line: If you split infinitives, do so infrequently, and understand that some might view them as unacceptable or sloppy style.

Ending Sentences with Prepositions

Prepositions—small connecting words such as at, about, to, and under—are used to clarify relationships between other words, especially between verbs and the receivers of the verb’s action. We have all heard admonishments against ending sentences with prepositions. Still, such a rule never really existed—as with the principle of not splitting infinitives, it was mostly passed down by grammarians who were attempting to make written English conform to the rules of Latin. Even the purist grammar handbook from the 1980s, Martha Kolln’s Language and Composition (link is external), calls the notion that sentences may not end with prepositions an “absurd warning.”

Of course, as a matter of style, ending a sentence with a preposition can give undue stress to the preposition, leaving the reader with the feeling that the sentence has ended weakly: 

He wasn’t sure which sample to look at. 

Therefore, if a sentence ending with a proposition sounds weak to you, revise it by moving or eliminating the preposition, but do not defy meaning or the natural word order. And for those who would argue with you over this issue and insist on the “rule,” point out that it is sometimes just inconvenient and illogical not to end a perfectly understandable and robust sentence with a preposition. 

You can even cite two authorities on language: William and Winston. Shakespeare’s Henry V includes the line:

“Who servest thou under?” 

The always quotable Winston Churchill, demonstrating the inconvenience when the so-called rule is followed, is reported to have put his feelings on the matter thus:

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Stylistic choices are often predetermined by the organization or business you work with or for. The choices you make in your writing contribute to how your reader will perceive the information. For more information regarding specific stylistic choices in your technical writing, consider watching this video that provides a deep dive into some of the everyday decisions you may have to make as a writer that can help contribute to overall readability.

Content is edited and revised from Style for Students Online, part of Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age, by Joe Schall, published with the creative support team at Penn State’s John A. Dutton e-Education Institute and the Institute’s Open Educational Resources (OER) Initiative. Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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