This ‘formal’ thing is a nonsense. Even my academic supervisors at Mac uni
are condemning anyone to eternal penury for not writing as actively as
possible. No more passive voice. No more compound sentences a paragraph long
(like one in Braudel’s ‘On History’ I read last week – beautiful prose as it
is. Even academics at universities are sentencing ‘formal’ style to Faustian
hell. Why is a 'technical writer' holding on to it’s coat-tails as though it
is something to behold, worship, defend? If we aren’t technical writing to
the intellectual level of a fourteen year old unless absolutely impossible
because of the subject’s technicality, then we shouldn’t be technical
Fundamentally we as technical communicators, writers, or word-smiths have a
responsibility to make our words as clear, simple and understandable to as
wide an audience as possible. So my tool of choice now, especially so more
than ever in the last few years, is the thesaurus and the dictionary.
Language use and ‘formal style’ have very different meanings. And in most
technical writing, passive voice – aka ‘formal style’ is UTTERLY unsuitable
to the vast majority of the audience you are intending to reach. They won’t
understand the meaning of ‘elegant’ 'formal style.’ Most of our audiences
barely read to the level of a 14 year old. So don’t write beyond that level,
which writing to that level is, surprisingly hard as it happens – because
the vocabulary is limited.
Besides that, “show” is far more definitionally clear than “illustrate” used
in the context of a Figure's caption. Frankly, the figure is (even if it’s a
photo) an ‘illustration’ that is meant to ‘show’ a point to the reader.
Quite apart from the fact the pomposity of the word choice makes it sound
impressive, I’ll also bet that if any of your readers have English
(Eng-rish?) as a second or third language, they’ll sure as hell have a
better shot at knowing what ‘show' means than ‘illustrates’ means. ‘Show’ is
a simple word, means what it says in this context without any confusion, is
easy to read, easy to say. George Orwell’s Politics and the English language
(http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/) rule 'ii
‘ says it all: "Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
Howard, back yourself. Use the thesaurus and the dictionary, and using them
explain with your impeccable capacity for elegant logical argument why
‘show’ is better than ‘illustrate’. You’ll win. And I’ll happily say what I
think about ‘illustrate’ versus ‘show’ to your technical writer…
+61 408 612 752
From: <austechwriter-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> on behalf of Howard Silcock
Date: Thursday, 15 June 2017 20:52
Subject: atw: Re: Another usage question (WAS "A software"?!)
I think I have a problem with the notion of formality. The same writing
guide I mentioned before frequently says some usage or other should be
avoided in a formal document, but what is it that makes certain documents
formal? I work with another tech writer who seems to think we shouldn't use
many everyday words in a user guide because they're too 'informal'. For
example, he doesn't like to say 'Figure 1 shows the interface as seen on
start-up', because 'show' is 'too informal'. He wants to change it to
'illustrate'. I strongly disagree, in this case partly because 'illustrate'
is not a synonym for 'show'. (It means 'provide an example of' and I'm not
giving an example, just depicting what is there.) But also I can't see
what's wrong with 'show' anyway. The books I most like to read when I'm
learning how to use software are all written very chattily - what's wrong
with that? - so I like to write that way. But I do know that some people
like to avoid using contractions in user guides, and so I avoid them when I
think that's the case, but would prefer not to. And I definitely resist
changing my vocabulary significantly. I would like the style guide to tell
me what documents are the 'formal' ones, but I know they won't. Where's the
line between formality and pomposity, Michael?
On Thu, 15 Jun 2017 at 5:30 pm, Michael Lewis <mlewis@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:
Depends on what you mean by "too informal". An age is something one can
certainly be over or under, as with Howard's unexceptionable examples; numbers
(of count nouns!) not so clearly. Pam Peters is silent on this one, but the
Macquarie Dictionary equates "over" with "in excess of" or "more than", so
it's hard to see what the problem is. However, "more" is acceptable, even to
the most pedantic, with both mass and count nouns; there isn't the same choice
as with "less" and "fewer". Perhaps, though, part of the problem is the
potential for ambiguity between "people over 20" and "over 20 people". My own
view is that "over" can be used with both types of noun, so why would we argue
about "under"? That said, I can certainly see that "in excess of" has a more
formal ring to it than either "over" or "more than", but frankly that seems a
matter of pomposity rather than of ordinary formality.
On 15/06/2017 14:22, Howard Silcock wrote:
Seems this list hasn't quite gone to ground (or been gonetogrounded?), so
I'll raise another question.
The writing style guide for the department where I'm working tells us not to
use 'over' instead of 'more than' in phrases like 'over 20 people' and
similarly not to say 'under 20 people' instead of 'fewer than'. This seems
ridiculous to me - phrases like 'the over-60s' and 'children under 12' are
perfectly ordinary usage, not even slang. But my wife agrees with the style
guide that these are 'too informal'.
What do you think?
On Thu, 15 Jun 2017 at 1:21 pm, John Maizels <john@xxxxxxxxxx> wrote:
I'm with Michael, even though I didn't have anything rationed.
When I see "a software" my first thought is that there's a missing noun, as
in "a software title". I have trouble considering software as a count
noun, but I do like Michael's explanation as to why non E1L speakers (and
especially those from Asia) might treat it as a count noun.
As for the other, I'm on the way to onboard a room full of students.
Seems natural enough.
At 13:09 15/06/2017, Michael Lewis wrote:
Indeed. (As a child of the rationing era, I remember it quite well.) But
the term has now acquired the meaning of a dealing "out of sight" of
authorities of any kind, including the tax man - and the anti-corruption
watchdogs. (There's another term that has taken on a new life!) "Under the
counter" is used often enough - at least in England, though perhaps it's
less common here - that it doesn't need a revival.
On 15/06/2017 12:59, Bob T wrote:
I though that the phrase 'under the counter' was a rather old phrase from
Britain that describes retailing during WW2 when rationing was being used.
One way to get around rations was to have some goods under counter and
out of sight.Â
Maybe it will have a revival.
On 15 June 2017 at 11:08, Michael Lewis <mlewis@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:
Treating "software" as a count noun rather than a mass noun is, indeed,
common to non-native speakers. There are many comparable examples,
including one I mentioned a while back - "pant" having become a singular
noun in quite widespread usage, because "a pair of pants" seems to refer
to those generous tailors (no "Y" there, Janet!) who sell a suit with a
single jacket and a second pair of trews. The mass/count noun distinction
really doesn't exist in many east Asian languages, especially those that
don't have "articles" such as a/an and the, so speakers of those languages
don't have the habits of thought that make the distinction seem natural.
As for "onboarding", it's a result of a legitimate process by which new
words enter the language and, having entered, start to behave like other
longer-standing words. Perhaps current political issues will lead to
"underthecountering" in the near future . . .
On 15/06/2017 09:51, Janet Taylor wrote:
Where on earth did you see that?
Iâ€™m still reeling from â€˜onboardingâ€™.
<mailto:austechwriter-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> ] On Behalf Of Nick Shears
Sent: Thursday, 15 June 2017 8:47 AM
To: Aus Tech Writer ( austechwriter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
<mailto:austechwriter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> ) <austechwriter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: atw: "A software"?!
I know itâ€™s been quiet here, but perhaps I can change that.
Am I the only person who winces when I see the phrase â€œa softwareâ€ ?
I tend to use â€œsoftwareâ€ , â€œa software packageâ€ , or â€œan appâ€ .
I know that language evolves, and â€œa softwareâ€ may become standard,
but for now it reads as if English is not the writerâ€™s native language.
Am I alone?
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John P Maizels FSMPTE
Media Versatilist: no problem too complex
SMPTE Governor , Asia Pacific Region