atw: Re: Another usage question (WAS "A software"?!)

  • From: Michael Lewis <mlewis@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <austechwriter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 17 Jun 2017 13:00:37 +1000

I really wanted to let this one go, but I can't.

In the second sentence - and again with that "aka" - Warren seems to equate "formal" with the use of passive voice, though evidently "compound sentences a paragraph long" also fall into the category, and apparently "formal" and "elegant" are closely equivalent. But, as I mentioned earlier, formality is a range of positions on a spectrum, not a single feature or cluster of features. (We might, in passing, note that Howard's question was "What is a formal document", not "What is formal language?")

I recall that once, when I was running a training program for staff of an accounting firm, one of the class complained that the kind of writing I was advocating wasn't formal enough. Her attitude was apparently that, when a professional person is writing to a client, there has to be a starched collar around the top! Perhaps that sort of attitude dies hard. Nevertheless, it does raise the point that different situations call for different levels of formality. An obvious example: as a witness in court proceedings I would not speak in the same way as Malcolm Turnbull does when shouting across the table at Bill Shorten.

I also take issue with Warren's claim that we "have a responsibility to make our words as clear, simple and understandable to as wide an audience as possible". If you are writing a manual about how to clean the injection system in an internal combustion engine, it is reasonable to assume that your reader knows something about how the whole engine works and what part the injection system plays in the whole. That is different from a training manual where you are teaching the basics of how an internal combustion engine works, and it's certainly not a problem if your language choices reflect that difference. Indeed, it's likely to be a problem if it doesn't reflect the difference, since there's a whole set of language choices involved in the choice between "how it works" and "how to use it".

I certainly agree that "elegance" is not something we need actively pursue in technical (or scientific or even business) communication. But nor is it something we should actively avoid - unless your understanding of elegance is very different from mine!

No; it really comes down to "suitability" - for the specific audience in the specific situation. (Any given audience in some other situation might well have quite different expectations.) Unless the staff at Macquarie have changed dramatically in the 42 months since I retired, they don't want totally informal writing - they just don't want stilted, unnatural, and _excessively_ formal writing.

- Michael Lewis

On 16/06/2017 16:55, Warren Lewington wrote:

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 writers.

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 ( 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…

Warren Lewington
+61 408 612 752

fn:Michael Lewis
tel;cell:+ 61 (0)414 887 782

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