Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.
Use the Simplest Word That Will Do the Job
In this Lesson:
- Trim fat words
- Dump awkward phrases
- Find the overblown words
- Will the real word please stand up?
- Loaded words
- Meaningless comparatives
- What about building my vocabulary?
Whether you know it or not, you've already started writing your paper by answering the questions in Lesson 8. (Now you don't have to worry about getting started!). Chances are, your answers are already in plain language, because you thought you were just carrying on a conversation, not writing your paper (fooled you!).
The lesson here is that when you write the way you talk, you usually choose the plain, simple words that everyone can understand. Keep it up. You don't have to shift gears to that dull, formal style you're used to writing in.
TRIM FAT WORDS
Go down this list of overworked words that show up in a lot of business and technical writing. You job is to write in the space following each one its simple, straightforward equivalent:
Do you see how you can simplify your writing by substituting the short-and-sweet word for its lofty equivalent? How many of the words in the list above clog up your writing? Who will miss them if you use the simpler versions instead?
Even our machines are being taught to speak in inflated language. I recently noticed an ad for a new copier that coos: "Replenish paper!" when it's out of paper.
DUMP AWKWARD PHRASES
Just as you have learned to streamline your words, you can also short-circuit roundabout phrases. Look at this list of phrases that are just long-winded ways of saying something very simple. Write in the space following each one the single-word equivalent:
FIND THE OVERBLOWN WORDS
Now read these sentences, paraphrased from real-life business and technical writing and find the overblown words and phrases. Then write the simple and direct equivalent below each one:
Three-quarters of those surveyed answered in the affirmative.
Please find enclosed the decoder ring you ordered.
We should formulate an alternative plan in the event that the stockholders vote the president out.
Good systems programmers are in short supply.
In view of the fact that solar energy is not yet fully developed at the present time, we will have to continue utilizing fossil fuels well into the next century.
The tests were conducted in conjunction with the employees' routine checkups.
The report recommended a substantial reduction in the remuneration received by the vice-presidents.
It has been brought to my attention that the employees' cafeteria needs to be painted.
The voltage at the amplifier output is limited by means of a negative-feedback circuit.
In the majority of instances, component failure was caused by cigarette smoke.
Aluminum is used for transmission lines in order to reduce weight and corrosion.
The new project is designed to institute improvements in the taste of cat food.
Prior to the time when the chairman of the board submitted his resignation, stockholders were of the opinion that it was time for a change.
In the event that the photo lab cannot accommodate the increased work load, it is within the realm of possibility that their facility will be enlarged.
Please call me at your earliest convenience.
The number of stars in our galaxy is of the order of magnitude of a hundred million.
The two results are found to be in agreement.
The chemicals exhibit a tendency to accumulate in the liver.
This is to acknowledge receipt of your order for a new model 505 copier.
It has been shown by Smith and Brown that high-speed neutrons retard the spoilage of guacamole.
Building a microcomputer involves the necessity of packing thousands of components on microscopic chips of silicon.
New writers frequently encounter difficulty in organizing their thoughts.
The committee will finalize its report tomorrow.
It seems reasonable to assume that the radar target is much larger than a breadbox.
The team decided to perform an analysis of the car's wind resistance for the purpose of reducing aerodynamic drag.
It is often the case that migrating whales gather in the vicinity of nude beaches.
WILL THE REAL WORD PLEASE STAND UP?
Euphemisms are sanitized names for socially unacceptable or politically incorrect things, acts, or ideas. Many writing situations require you to soft-pedal touchy subjects, but it's usually overdone. The result is obscured information.
Here are some euphemisms that can usually be replaced by their real names. Write the no-nonsense equivalents in the spaces provided:
Write down here five commonly used euphemisms for war:
You may not need to use many of these words in your work, but this will give you an idea of how we camouflage and soften unpleasant ideas with foggy words. In the scientific and technical world, we often invent special jargon to cover up situations or facts that we may not want our audience to be exposed to directly.
Another kind of word to avoid in business and technical writing is the word that is loaded with positive or negative emotions. When you use such loaded words, you guarantee that each reader will interpret then according to his own feelings and biases, not the meaning you intended.
Look at this list of words and mark a plus next to the ones that you have positive feelings about and a minus next to the ones you have negative feelings about. If you think you are neutral about a word, put a zero next to it:
Do you see that each pair of words on the same line often refers to the same thing? If your scientific and technical writing is to remain objective, you have to avoid words that reveal your own emotional biases and stir up those of others.
Avoid using comparative or relative words whose meanings depend on your readers' subjective interpretations of quantity or quality. Here are the more common comparatives to avoid:
- large, small
- high, low
- most, some
- few, many
- slow, fast
- near, far
- good, bad
- seldom, often
- long, short
- hot, cold
- sooner, later
To find more specific substitutes, ask yourself how large, how fast, or compared with what
Also avoid using words that imply value judgments without specifying what the value is, compared with what, or who is making the judgment. Here are some examples of these words:
WHAT ABOUT BUILDING MY VOCABULARY?
Actualize, verbalize, finalize, prioritize, schedulize, contemporize, utilize, formalize, qualitize, containerize, operationalize, parameterize, concretize, conceptualize, definitize, militarize, annualize, accessorize, computerize, or standardize.
IZE is a drug consumed in large quantities by business and technical speakers and writers. It turns ordinary people into official-sounding authorities and lets them talk for hours without saying anything.
How can you use the simplest word that will do the job and still maintain and demonstrate a reasonable vocabulary? What will yourreaders think if you write with a sixth-grade vocabulary?
It's well known that there's a strong connection between the size of a person's vocabulary and his success in the business and technical worlds. Knowing and using the precise word for your intended meaning always enhances communication and shows people that you know what you're talking about. Since we tend to think in words, a large vocabulary also makes your thinking more precise and expands its range.
The trick is to use words that are designed to express rather than to impress. If you know a big word that exactly expresses your idea, and no little word will do, use it. Your readers will appreciate your precision. But if you have a simple idea that can be expressed in a few one-syllable words, putting it in flowery, convoluted language just reveals your insecurity with the language.
The pompous words and phrases you've corrected in this lesson are examples of puffing up the language to impress people. But when are high-powered words justified?
Here's an exercise to give you practice choosing the precise word and recognizing when such words are necessary. Listed below are some definitions that are specific enough that only one word will fit it exactly. Try to find that word and write it in the space following each definition:
LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE
Words, of course, are the basic modules of all writing. The care you use in choosing them reveals a lot about your background, your competence, and the crispness of your thinking. Generally, the simple, direct word should replace the stuffy, impressive one. But there are many times when you'll have to dig deep into your vocabulary and pull out precisely the word you want.
In the next lesson, you'll learn to substitute specific, concrete words for vague, abstract ones.
"Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all." -Winston Churchill
-- End of Lesson 10 --
Beginning of Lesson 10 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 11