Technical Style and Rhetoric
Rhetoric means the art and skill in using language effectively and persuasively. Style is the integration of various rhetorical skills that reflects the characteristics of a certain register, genre or time. The style of modern technical writing follows the three criteria of technical communication: accessibility, comprehensibility and usability.
To follow the technical style, you should adopt specific rhetorical skills that are commonly used in technical communication. These rhetorical skills tell you how to make the choices that determine whether your ideas will be understood or persuasive, how to select the words that will move your readers to accept what you have written, and how to organize those words into the sentences and paragraphs that ultimately will inform and persuade your readers. This chapter classifies these rhetorical skills into four principles. By following these principles you will be able to create your documents effectively.
• Considering audiences
• Selecting appropriate words
• Writing clear sentences
• Organizing documents effectively
I. Considering Audiences
The first principle of effective writing is audience consideration. Whether you are writing a letter, a report, or a manual, you must first know who your readers are. Then you must decide how best to meet the readers’ needs. You should try to motivate your readers so that they are willing to read your document.
1. Addressing Readers Directly
People are generally more receptive to a document if they feel that it is addressed to them. The most direct way of addressing a reader is by name, as in letters and memos. However, some documents, such as user manuals, address a wide audience. In such cases, you may address your readers in second person “you”. This pronoun will give your writing a tone of directness and personal interest. You can compare the following examples and detect the differences in tone and attitude.
Stress depletes both people’s energy and motivation压力降低人们的活力与动机. To get their
stress out, they can learn and regularly practice relaxation techniques学习并有规律地练习松
弛法. They may try sitting there for ten or fifteen minutes and just concentrate on their
breathing. They should try to notice each breath as it comes in and goes out. It might even help
if they count one as they exhale, then as they exhale again, count two, and so on until four.
Then they should start counting all over again. This method helps to focus their attention and
regularizes their breathing, which has both a relaxing and kind of a cleansing effect这种方法具
Stress depletes both your energy and motivation. To get your stress out, you can learn and
regularly practice relaxation techniques. You may try sitting there for ten or fifteen minutes and
just concentrate on your breathing. You should try to notice each breath as it comes in and goes
out. It might even help if you count one as you exhale, then as you exhale again, count two, and
so on until four. Then you should start counting all over again. This method helps to focus your
attention and regularizes your breathing, which has both a relaxing and kind of a cleansing
One of the most popular uses of you for addressing the audience is in advertisements. By using
you, the advertiser creates an impression that the commodity concerns the audience’s life and work
directly and thus causes them to pay more attention to the commodity.
2. Avoiding the Passive Voice
Some writers mistakenly rely on the passive voice because they think it sounds more objective and formal. However the passive voice often makes writing wordy, indirect and evasive because it changes the natural word order of the sentence. Your writing will be clearer and more direct if you write in the active voice. Consider the following:
CONCISE AND DIRECT: I underestimated labor costs for this project.
INDIRECT AND EVASIVE: Labor costs for this project were underestimated.
CONCISE AND DIRECT: The electrician should turn off the power before replacing the light bulb.
WORDY AND INDIRECT: The power should be turned off by the electrician before the light bulb
Use the active voice when you want to emphasize action. Otherwise, your statement will lose power.
WEAK PASSIVE: If my claim is not settled by July 18, Nicholson Business Bureau will be
contacted, and their advice on legal action will be taken.
STRONG ACTIVE: If you do not settle my claim by July 18, I will contact Nicholson Business
Bureau for advice on legal action.
Unless you have a deliberate reason for choosing the passive structure, use the active voice. The active construction gives readers quick, clear and emphatic information.
Avoiding Sexist Language 3.
Sex-specific language (e.g. her pregnancy, his prostate gland前列腺) is acceptable in sex-specific
medical usage. However, such language may change into sexist language when the user arbitrarily imposes sex stereotypes or employs sex-specific pronouns (she, he, her, his) while referring to both
的语言就会成为性别歧视语言。The following are two examples of sexist language:
Each nurse should ask her patient for informed consent before she carries out any treatment. A manager should bring his employee’s initiative into full play充分发挥雇员的积极性 if he
wants to run his business well.
Many common words contain the assumption that “man” represents the entire human
population, or that men are the only people worth mentioning. Exclusive language risks offending
readers排斥性语言会造成读者的反感; at the very least, it will tend to make some of your readers
feel left out or ignored. If any member of your audience feels offended or ignored in any way, then
communication is hindered. You should follow the guidelines below to avoid sexist usages in your
Guidelines for Avoiding Sexist Language
1) Use neutral expressions. If you use any of the terms in the left-hand column below but are
not referring to a specific person, try to use the alternative in the right-hand column.
chairman chair or chairperson
fireman fire fighter
lineman line worker
mailman mail carrier
manmade synthetic; artificial
manpower work force; labor force
2) Rephrase to eliminate the pronoun, but only if you can do so without altering your original
SEXIST: A manager will succeed if he knows the market.
REVISED: A manager who knows the market succeeds.
3) Use plural forms to avoid singular pronouns.
SEXIST: A manager will succeed if he knows the market.
REVISED: Managers will succeed if they know the market.
4) When possible (as in direct address) use you: You will succeed if you know the market. But
use this form only when addressing someone directly.
5) Use Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss, unless you know that the person prefers one of the
traditional titles, or omit titles completely: Roger Smith and Jane Kelly; Smith and Kelly.
6) Drop diminutive endings去掉表示“小的，表示喜爱或嘲笑等！”词尾， such as -ess and
-ette used to denote females (poetess, drum majorette, actress).
7) Use occasional pairings (him or her, she or he, his or hers): A manager will succeed if he
or she knows the market. But note that overuse of such pairings can be awkward: A
manager should do his or her best to make sure that he or she knows his or her customers.
8) In quoting sources that contain sexist usage, choose these options:
• Insert [sic] (meaning taken from the original text原文如此) following the first
instance of sexist terminology in a particular passage.
• Paraphrase instead of quoting directly.
• Use ellipses 省略号to omit sexist phrasing.
II. Selecting Appropriate Words
When you actually get down writing, the first thing is to choose words. A basic rule of good writing is to make sure that your readers can understand and follow what they are reading. You should always keep in mind your readers’ level of familiarity with the topic, and choose your words with caution. You should ask yourself who will read the document, and whether different people will read different parts. Choose words that are correct and that readers understand. Even expert readers appreciate simple and clear writing.
1. Avoiding Inflated Language
Inexperienced writers may attempt to impress their readers by using “big” words. Pompous writing
is rarely effective because it often confuses readers. Most readers appreciate everyday language so that they can read quickly. So keep in mind that your task in writing is to inform your readers, not to impress them with the size of your vocabulary.
INFLATED: Your conceptualization of our aggregate capability may enhance our producing
CONCISE: Your idea about our capability may improve our production.
Certain technical terms may be indispensable in certain contexts, but the nontechnical words can usually simplify the text a lot. For example, instead of “answer in the affirmative”, use “say yes”;
instead of “endeavoring to promulgate”, use “try to announce”. A plain style is more persuasive
because it leaves no one out. Therefore, in your writing, try to replace inflated words in the left-hand column with more familiar words in the right-hand column below.
INFLATED WORDS: FAMILIAR WORDS:
2. Avoiding Jargon
Jargon refers to the specialized language of a trade or profession. Specialized terms are often more precise than general terms. For instance, doctors prefer the specific term myocardial infarction to the
vague term heart attack. In addition, specialized terms frequently help to condense writing. For example, stat (from the Latin statim or immediately) is a medical term for drop everything and deal
with this emergency.
Specialized language among members of a trade or profession can often make communication more efficient as all members of the group understand the precise meaning of the term. However, if you use the specialized language for an audience in different specialties, you will be using jargon.
The disadvantage of using jargon is that it may cause misunderstanding to those who don’t
know the jargon. For example, if a computer programmer says that the bugs have deleted his
progress in completing a project, he means an error that has caused the program to run incorrectly, while his reader may think he is talking about some insects.
As a technical writer you should know when to use specialized language. If you are sure that all of your readers are professionals who can understand your use of the specialized terms, you may safely use them. If you are in any doubt, however, replace jargons with more familiar words.
JARGONIC: Safety measures are very strict in this hot laboratory.
CLEAR: Safety measures are very strict in this radioactive laboratory.
JARGONIC: Unilateral nephrectomy 单边肾切除术was performed.
CLEAR: One-sided kidney cutting was performed.
CLEAR AND DIRECT: One kidney was cut out.
When you are writing for a mixed readership that includes people both inside and outside your field, define any new terms, setting the definition off with parentheses or dashes. You can define essential terms either immediately or in a glossary. For example:
Substances that lessen pain but do not affect other sensations are called analgesics (pain
Survival depends on maintaining homeostasis动态平衡—a stable internal environment in
which cells can live and carry out their functions.
When writing for people outside your field, avoid technical terms and use more general terms. If you wish, add the technical term in parentheses, but use the general term for the dissuasion. For example:
The topic of pathogens病原体 that are transmitted from animals to human being (zoonoses人
畜共患病) has received attention recently.
If this note is replaced by another note (refinanced), you will receive a refund on the finance
3. Using the Correct Word
Accuracy in technical communication is vital, and you will be inaccurate if you fail to distinguish
between similar words (such as street and avenue). The wrong choice of words could be misleading, confusing, and costly. The following table lists some commonly confused words and their correct
usages in a sentence.
Figure 6-1 Confused Words and Their Correct Usages Similar Words Correct Usages in a Sentence
Affect means "to have an influence on." Smoking affects health.
Affect can also mean "to pretend." Mary likes to affect a French accent.
Effect used as a noun means "a result." Smoking has a negative effect on health.
Effect used as a verb means "to make happen." Smoking can effect deterioration in health.
Already means "before this time." She had already gone when I arrived.
All ready means "prepared." We are all ready for the long journey.
Continual means "repeated at intervals." The young couple have continual arguments
with each other for trifles.
Continuous means "without interruption." The brain needs a continuous supply of blood.
Disinterested means "unbiased" or "impartial." Journals of science call for disinterested analysis
of research findings.
Uninterested means "not caring." Primary school children are usually uninterested
Eminent means "famous" or "distinguished," The students are expecting the arrival of an
Imminent means "about to happen." According to the weather report a rainstorm is
Imply means "to hint at" or "to insinuate." This story implies that a crime occurred.
Infer means "to reason from evidence." From this story, we can infer that a crime
Precede means "to come before." Audience analysis should precede a report
Proceed means "to go forward." He looked surprised, and then proceeded to roar
Principle is always a noun that means "basic rule The principle of diligence and frugality applies or standard." to all undertakings.
Principal, used as a noun, means "the major All principals attending the conference must
person(s)." sign the agreement.
4. Avoiding Cliches 陈腐词语
Some words and expressions have the power of originality and freshness when they are first created,
but after being frequently used for a long time, they lose their freshness and become trite. Such an
expression is considered a cliche. Since readers quickly tire of the predictability of cliches, the ideas
as well as the expressions in cliche-loaded writing will soon lose their freshness and attraction. Here
are just a few examples.
Busy as a bee. 象蜜蜂一样忙碌。 Like water off a duck’s back.无济于事。
Quick as a wink.飞快。 Went in one ear and out the other.耳旁风。
Selling like hotcakes.抢手货。 Last but not least.最后但并非最不重要。
Water over the dam.覆水难收。 Work like a dog.辛苦工作。
Some sentence patterns are also regarded as clichés since they are used so frequently in technical writing. For example:
It has been observed that…. It goes without saying that….
It has been concluded that…. As is already pointed out that….
III. Writing Clear Sentences
After selecting the right words, your next step is to compose them into sentences. The challenge in writing good sentences is to convey your meaning clearly. This section provides you with the guidelines for sentence writing.
1. Following the Natural Structure of a Sentence
According to the general principle of cognition, people in reading usually assume that what is mentioned first happens first. In sentence writing, the most natural word order in accordance with readers’ sequence of cognition is the order from known information to new information. This order is usually easy and quick for people to understand. 根据认知的一般原理，人们在阅读中通常认为
的顺序。这种词序便于读者迅速理解。Therefore in technical writing, you should generally
compose your sentences according to the natural sequences, such as from old to new, from cause to effect, or from condition to result.
UNNATURAL: He didn’t go home until he finished his experiment.
NATURAL: After he finished the experiment, he went home. (time sequence)
UNNATURAL: We expect a refund because of the malfunction of your product.
NATURAL: Because of the malfunction of your product, we expect a refund. (cause to effect)
UNNATURAL: You will damage the immersion heater if you plug it in without placing it under
CORRECT: If you plug the immersion heater in without placing it under water, you will damage
it. (condition to result)
2. Eliminating Extra Words
Extra words are those in a sentence that do not contribute anything worthwhile to the sentence. Such words not only waste space on the page, but also waste the reader’s energy and time by making the
sentence long and difficult to understand. Compare the following examples.
WORDY: Due to the fact that the vegetation was destroyed, the pasture turned into desert.
CONCISE: Since the vegetation was destroyed, the pasture turned into desert.
WORDY: There is a coaxial cable同轴电缆connecting the antenna to the receiver.
CONCISE: A coaxial cable connects the antenna to the receiver.
Although you need not reduce every phrase into the smallest possible number of words, cut out
extra words that add length without giving real information. Choose words in the right-hand column
instead of those wordy expressions in the left-hand column below.
a majority of most
at the conclusion of after
at the present time now
owing to the fact that because
for the purpose of to
for the reason that since
in view of the foregoing therefore
on a daily basis daily
prior to before
with regard to about
3. Avoiding Redundancy
A redundant expression says the same thing twice in different words, such as enter into. Some
people mistakenly believe that they will intensify the significance of the message by repetition, but
unnecessary repetition clutters writing and dilutes meaning. Compare the following examples:
REDUNDANT: Through mutual cooperation, we can achieve our goals.
CONCISE: We can achieve our goals by cooperation.
REDUNDANT: The price increase has exceeded the amount of 50 dollars.
CONCISE: The price increase has exceeded 50 dollars.
In technical writing, you should replace redundant expressions in the following left-hand
column with the corresponding expressions in the right-hand column.
adequate enough enough (or adequate)
and moreover moreover
but nevertheless nevertheless
by means of by
during the course of during
entirely complete complete
every single every (or single)
exactly the same the same
group together group
few in number few
never at any time never
new innovation innovation
period of time period (or time)
share in common share
4. Avoiding Weak Verb + Nominalization Construction
A traditionally popular construction in scientific writing is the use of a weak verb plus a noun or nouns derived from verbs. Some writers mistakenly believe that this construction makes their writing formal and important. For example:
The computer program performed an analysis and made an evaluation of our new system.
In this sentence, “perform” and “made” serve as predicate verbs grammatically but does not express any action, the real actions are expressed by the following nouns derived from verbs. Such construction only adds the length and difficulty to the sentence without adding any meaning. We can make the sentence shorter and easier to understand by eliminating the weak verbs and the nominalizations. For example:
The computer program analyzed and evaluated our new system.
Weak verbs (such as be, have, give, make, come, take, perform, accomplish) does not express
specific actions when they are used with nominalizations. Use verbs that express a definite action in a sentence.
WEAK VERB + NOMINALIZATION: ACTION VERB:
take into consideration consider
have the ability to can
make an assumption assume
come to the conclusion conclude
give a summary of summarize
conduct an investigation of investigate
provide a description of describe
5. Avoiding Long Sentences Complicated in Structures
Long sentences (generally over 25 words) with complex structures make details hard to remember and relationships hard to identify. They are sometimes so complicated that readers may either not bother to work out the meaning or may arrive at the wrong meaning. These sentences should be broken into several shorter sentences, each containing only one or two ideas.
The invention of nuclear weapons and the subsequent development by the United States and the
Soviet Union of many thousands of strategic nuclear weapons forced a slow and painful
recognition that the new power thus acquired forever changed not only the relationship between
the two superpowers but also the relationship of humankind to the institution of warfare itself.
The United States and the Soviet Union invented nuclear weapons and subsequently developed
many thousands of strategic warheads in the nuclear arms race against each other. However,
they were forced to recognize slowly and painfully that the new power thus acquired forever
changed the relationship between them. They also realized that the new power forever changed
the relationship of humankind to the practice of warfare itself.
6. Avoiding Negative Sentences
Negative sentences are indirect because they imply what we should do by telling us what not to do. Just like forcing readers to perform mental gymnastics, negatives may slow down readers’ speed in
reading. Therefore, you should use straightforward positive statements whenever possible.
NEGATIVE: Although passive voice constructions are grammatically not unacceptable, they are
not easy to follow.
POSITIVE: Although passive voice constructions are grammatically acceptable, they are difficult
Check your writing to see if you have used negative constructions such as those in the left-hand column below and, if possible, replace them with the corresponding positive constructions in the right-hand column.
not until only when
not unless only if
not reject accept
not disagree agree
not illegal legal
not fail succeed
7. Avoiding Noun Strings
A noun can be used to modify another, but if you use two or more nouns to modify a noun, the string of words can be hard to read because it is difficult to determine their relations. For example:
The instruction explains how to operate the main gear inboard door retraction winch handle.
There are generally three ways to make the relations among the nouns clearer. You can change the pre-modifiers into post-modifiers by adding appropriate prepositions. For example:
The instruction explains how to operate the retraction winch handle of the inboard door to the