This chapter enlightens writers about expectations in technical writing, both academic and professional, in the areas of verbosity, formality, and wording appropriately for the intended audience, purpose, and context of documents. Audience and context are paramount to word choice considerations. Most students are comfortable with language they use in everyday casual social exchanges. However, everyone needs to practice to become professionals with skills in academic and job-related writing.
Through study of examples found in professional documents and practice of the information introduced in this chapter, students will learn to consider audience, purpose, and context of writing situations in choosing language and styles for documents with the goal of improving the audience’s ability to understand and use those documents efficiently.
This chapter aims to help students develop the following skills:
- to identify and avoid or revise wording that is discriminatory or otherwise may offend readers;
- to address confusion and increase accuracy in word choices;
- to develop language and style habits that are precise, accurate, and appropriately formal for writing in academic and professional settings; and
- to recognize situations in which passive or active voice are appropriate style choices.
How can writers identify and avoid using offensive language?
If you have been employed in the United States, or you have recently attended an American public or private school of any kind, you are likely keenly aware that boundaries on behavior exist and are enforced, both at work and at school. Discrimination or harassment found to stem from any characteristics within a protected class of traits is illegal and can get you expelled or fired. Most can agree that the global sociopolitical climate presents increasing challenges for writers to meet. Additionally, if you are pursuing a professional career in a STEM field, your chances of studying and working with diverse groups are quite high, increasing your opportunities to experience varied cultures in which you may need to adjust your language to maintain professionalism and cultural sensitivity in communication.
Recognize and avoid racist, sexist, and culturally insensitive language
The term protected class in the previous paragraph refers to sex or race, as well as multiple other characteristics. U.S. federal laws prohibit discriminatory treatment by service providers and employers on the basis of the person’s identification with a protected class. The decisions writers make about word usage are critical in avoiding offensive language, so understanding how the audience will perceive the message based on the delivery of the message – rather than on the writer’s intention – is crucial. As with nearly everything else in responsible adult society, “I didn’t mean that,” or even “I didn’t know” are meaningless excuses for offending another person with communication choices. Awareness about discrimination and careful choices are not optional for anyone operating in a professional capacity.
It is likely you know the meaning of racism, and you have been taught how to communicate in writing without being offensive to people identifying with any racial group. Sexism and the related term sexist language refer to discrimination against a person based on that person’s sex or gender. Though not by definition, sex-based discrimination is overwhelmingly committed against women; and stereotyping women as being generally inferior to men has given rise to a variety of behaviors that you must avoid and must not tolerate from other professionals.
Among the offenses to eliminate from writing of all types are the following sexist choices:
- Do not refer to women as “girls,” or address women using other condescending or diminutive/familiar terms (such as “sweetie”). These choices are inappropriate in part because they indicate the other person is unequal or “less than” another person.
- Do not attempt humor or casual connections through the use of classic stereotyping language, such as “You know women drivers!”
- Do not employ clichés or euphemisms in any writing or other communication: referring to certain tasks as “women’s work,” for example, is unacceptable sexist behavior.
- Keep in mind that women who commit any of these linguistic offenses against other women or against men are equally guilty of using inappropriate sexist language.
Similar pitfalls exist with regard to language that may be insensitive to readers with regard to disability: the term handicapped, for example, was previously acceptable but has been removed from federal statute because it is offensive (US Dept. of Education, 1992). Terms that can be construed as insensitive to persons relative to their age (ageist language like kids for young adults, or old-timers) are simply not worth risking offense in an attempt at cleverness. Remember the lesson with regard to avoiding potentially offensive language is simply this: your intent can be obscured by word choices in attempting to relay that intent in a message. The writer’s responsibility is to be respectful and unbiased in language choices.
What about unintentional use of language that indicates potential bias?
You may have determined by now that you understand how to avoid the major infractions: but, the more subtle errors are no less important and might be more difficult to recognize. As you read the following handout provided by the Colorado School of Mines Writing Center (2019), notice the reclassification of some wording conventions. Words and phrases previously taught as appropriately formal are now rejected as indications of inappropriate biases. Additionally, the seventh edition of the APA Publication Manual (2019) contains that organization’s updated guidelines for reducing bias in language in its Chapter 5.
Consider the example provided on the first page of the handout discussing the choice between mankind and humankind. Do you think the change is appropriate as shown in the example? Can you think of a clearer or more efficient way to revise the biased wording? Are there disadvantages to the revision presented in the handout? Explain your answers.
Activity: removing bias and matching pronouns with nouns
Consider again the Pronouns section of the handout provided on the previous pages and practice revising the following sentences, which are adapted from the Colorado School of Mines Writing Center’s “Biased Language Exercises” (2019). Remember to remove potentially biased constructions by:
- changing singular nouns and pronouns to plurals; or
- revising the obsolete assumed male pronoun to include both sexes: he/him or she/her.
Also, revise the nouns and pronouns as necessary to match singular nouns with singular pronouns; and plural nouns with plural pronouns.
- Mankind is developing technology that can fight against climate change.
- Each researcher designed his vision of what the drone should look like before sharing it with their team members.
- It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between man-made chemicals and natural chemicals.
- Each chemical engineer on the project created their own synthetic material.
How can writers address confusion and increase accuracy in word choices?
Look it up
The “Reporting Research Outcomes” chapter introduces some of the most commonly confused pairs of terms that appear in research writing. Multiple resources exist online to help you choose words correctly in confusing or similar-sounding pairs of terms. The only serious error you can make as a technical writer regarding such word mix-ups? Not taking the time to look the words up to confirm you are accurately using correct terms. Here is a place to start improving your skills at choosing correct words.
Talk it out
You probably have peers or other friends with whom you enjoy spending leisure time. Perhaps you have other friends with whom you study, still others in your exercise group, and family members who are your favorite travel companions. Another great partner or group to cultivate in your life is a reading and writing buddy. A peer reviewer is among a college student’s most valuable resources for improving academic and practical skills and the grade marks earned through demonstrating those skills. Engaging in peer review exchanges is sometimes the most helpful learning process of any introduced in a writing course.
Working with a peer to revise for wording can be a quick and easy way to improve drafts. The lessons in this textbook offer a number of opportunities to complete structured peer review exercises: however, a more casual level of peer review is worth arranging with others in your class. Consider opening a dialogue with one of your classmates or other peers in school and arrange to exchange drafts with each other prior to assignment due dates. Some student writers find that taking turns reading each other’s papers aloud while listening for awkward wording and other errors is a good icebreaker for beginning the revision process.
Talking it out with a peer tutor or other member of your school’s student success staff will almost certainly help. Does your campus include a writing center or other support system for students to meet with tutors or academic coaches? Find out what help is available and sign up for a session before you are having difficulty. If you follow the guidance from your school’s tutoring program and arrive prepared with a draft, it is likely you can get assistance with multiple aspects of revisions (not just wording).
How do writers choose language and styles that are precise, accurate, and appropriately formal for writing in academic and professional settings?
In addition to the essential work you must do to ensure documents are free from both overtly discriminatory or offensive language and the more insidious biased word choices, your diligence in presenting a message that thoughtfully meets the needs of the audience is stressed as well. Many chapters in this textbook emphasize the need to analyze the audience for whom documents are prepared. Study the Colorado School of Mines Writing Center’s “Identifying Your Audience” handout (2020) on the following pages:
Reflect on the following question or discuss in class as directed by your instructor: how can understanding your audience members’ level of knowledge about your topic help you address language and style with confidence?
How do writers recognize which situations require active or passive voice style choices?
The “Writing Sentences” chapter of this textbook addresses the differences between active and passive construction and explains how to revise sentences to convert them from one style to the other. Be mindful, however, that passive construction is not an error or bad habit that should be avoided: rather, it is useful and even preferred for some purposes in professional writing. This section reviews situations in which one style or the other may be preferred, and explores how such choices may affect the effectiveness and outcomes of documents.
When is passive construction preferred?
As it is defined in the “Writing Sentences” chapter, passive refers to sentences in which the action of the verb is happening to the subject. Forms of the verb to be – which show no action but instead simply represent a state of being – are always a component of passive construction. However, not all uses of to be verbs are automatically passive.
In high school preparatory courses
College writing students often bring a strong resistance to writing “in the first person,” or using the pronouns “I” and “me” in assignments. College preparatory writing courses may emphasize avoiding first-person writing as being too informal for college work: however, technical writing might require writers to identify and refer to themselves in documents. The reasons for writing in a first-person voice are explained in the next section.
In documents when writers want to downplay the actor
At first glance, the idea of “downplaying the actor” of a sentence may not make sense. The actor performing the verb is normally the subject of the sentence. It’s what the sentence is about. Another way to think about using passive voice is that it allows a writer to emphasize the object of the verb in the sentence: that is, the noun being acted upon by the verb. In passive voice, that object becomes the subject of the sentence. Consider an example:
Active construction: Somebody vandalized the statues on campus last summer.
subject verb object
As you know, the subject-verb-object construction above is written correctly. However, what if the writer wanted to emphasize the statues in the sentence? After all, perhaps since there is not a specific vandal being accused, the fact that the statues were damaged seems to be the important point of the sentence. Note the revised version:
Passive construction: The statues on campus were vandalized last summer by somebody.
subject verb prep. phrase
What is important to the writer in this example is the statues. They were the object receiving the action of the verb in the active sentence, but in the second version, the statues are the subject of a passive verb. One notable improvement can be made to this passive construction because the subject and verb are present, making a complete sentence. If you remove the prepositional phrase, the sentence maintains its meaning but becomes shorter:
Clearer passive construction: The statues on campus were vandalized last summer.
subject to be + verb
The writer in this case may or may not know who the “somebody” was, but the writer’s emphasis is clearly the statues and what happened to them. Notice how the construction, while passive, does not make the sentence wordy, vague, or overly complex. It simply emphasizes the object of the verb from the active construction.
In documents when writers want to indicate objectivity
In the examples above, the agent performing the action in the sentences appears to be unknown – it’s “somebody,” but that’s all we know. In college and professional work, you will find research writing frequently uses passive construction; not because the agent is unknown, but instead to focus attention on the work being reported rather than on the author. While researchers in some fields – some of the social sciences, for example – may use first-person pronouns in their journal articles, the industry standard in your chosen field may well be to write in third person. Such construction, which is most easily obtained using the passive voice, has a more formal tone overall than first person voice. Additionally, when a writer explains that “a group of samples was chosen” instead of writing “I chose a group of samples,” readers may get a sense that the research is objective and non-biased because the researcher is not directly identified in the statement.
Look at the following excerpt from a peer-reviewed journal article: “Applying photogrammetry to reconstruct 3D luminance point clouds of indoor environments,” published in the journal Architectural Engineering and Design Management (Kurkela, Maksimainen, Julin, Virtanen, Mannisto, Vaaja, & Hyyppa, 2020). What do you notice about the use of passive and active construction?
Camera equipment and image data
As the aim was to facilitate both luminance mapping and 3D reconstruction from the same image set, the requirements from both of these had to be taken into account in data acquisition. Imaging luminance photometry is usually accomplished by capturing multiple images from one location using a tripod. Photogrammetric imaging is performed by capturing images from different locations and a tripod could be used especially for low lighting situations. In our case, however, the complex environment would have made the use of a tripod inconvenient and time-consuming. Hence, we captured the image set with a hand-held camera. As the optimal camera system and settings for these two measurement methods differ, a compromise is needed. In practice, this means that the exposure is determined by the lowest luminance value we want to measure, and using HDR imaging was not applicable.
We used a Nikon D800E camera with a Nikkor AF-S 14-24 mm f/2.8G ED lens locked to a 14 mm focal length. For hand-held image capturing, we applied a 1/250 s shutter speed. The aperture of f/5.6 and the ISO sensitivity of 3,200 were selected for optimal depth of field and signal-to-noise ratio. The camera had been calibrated both radiometrically and geometrically, and the vignetting correction function for the camera system was determined (Kurkela et al., 2017).
The full measurement data set consisted of 453 Nikon electronic format (NEF) raw images. The adopted 3D reconstruction software slightly altered the 16-bit images, while the 8-bit images remain unchanged. Hence, the following pre-processing was performed on the measurement series in order to preserve its bit depth when using 8-bit images. The luminance information is a single scalar that is obtained from the measured R, G, and B values by applying Equation 1. The original bit depth of the raw measurement was between 12 and 13 bits, which was converted to a 16-bit image for luminance calculation. In the photogrammetric reconstruction, we had three 8-bit channels – R, G and B – that we could use for each 16-bit luminance scalar. Hence, the single 16-bit luminance information was mapped over the three 8-bit channels. In this way, the usable dynamic range of 3 * 8-bits was attained, with the ability to distinguish 224 different numeric values. Thus, the dynamic resolution of the image (approximately 13 bits) can be preserved through the 3D reconstruction process.
Activity: recognize passive and active voice construction
Working with a partner, identify each sentence in the excerpt above that is written in an active (rather than passive) construction. Write each sentence below and explain how you know it is written in an active voice.
Now, work with your partner to identify all of the subject-verb pairs (one in each sentence) written in a passive format: that is, [subject] is acted upon by the agent. Remember some of the verbs will simply be forms of to be:
Do you think the discussion in the excerpt suggests a bias or subjectivity on the part of the writers? Explain your answer:
While active-voice writing is indicated as a strong preference in many works of technical writing, the appropriate choice relates (not surprisingly) to the audience. In other words, you should always ask your instructor for his or her preference when considering first or third person for an assignment. Note that in the “Writing Lab Reports” chapter, passive voice and third person construction is valued for its ability to make the reports objective. Use of the passive voice may be preferred for high school composition courses and formal college writing situations; when the writer wants to emphasize the receiver of the verb’s action; and when reporting research outcomes in fields where third person passive voice is an industry- or field-wide standard.
When is active construction preferred?
Active voice construction frequently results in shorter, clearer sentences. For that reason, work to develop a writing style in which the active voice is predominant. Again, the audience is always a writer’s primary consideration when choosing wording, structure, style, and tone for a document. Instructions, for example, are most effective when presented in active voice. Given that audiences for your technical writing endeavors will benefit from work that is clear, concise, complete, and correct, “more active than passive” voice is preferred generally unless there is a clear expectation or requirement to use passive voice.
Activity: convert from passive to active voice
Convert the following sentences from passive to active voice so they are more clear and concise. Your new sentences should have fewer words than the originals: make all changes you think are helpful. Remember to revise by:
- changing the subject of the passive sentence from the noun receiving the verb’s action to the noun doing the action
- making the old subject into the object of the active verb
- The volume control slider should be placed in the “Minimum” position before the power cord is plugged in by the operator.
- A lot of food was prepared for the week-long summer camp, but it was not eaten by the campers.
- The brains of fearful or arrogant individuals are flavored in the same way and are equally enjoyed by zombies.
- A variety of synthetic materials were created by the students who were working in the lab.
Make deliberate wording choices in all professional and technical writing efforts. Using offensive or insensitive language results in disastrous outcomes. Choose accurate and appropriate words, revise carefully, and observe formality conventions for the situation your documents serve. Often obtaining a peer review is worth the time and effort to ensure documents are clear, concise, complete, correct, and appropriate for intended as well as tertiary audiences. Successful writing is deliberate and requires practice, which means asking questions and revising work until you are confident in its suitability for the audience, context, and purpose.
Developmental writing assignment
- Read and take notes on the editorial document at this link: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html
- Write and submit a summary discussing the three instances the author discusses in which passive voice was used, in her opinion, to downplay the significance of the information provided by the textbook(s). Do you agree or disagree with the author’s assessment of this use of passive construction? Why or why not? Be prepared to discuss your summary and opinions in class.
Technical writing document creation assignment
- Read and take notes on the article at this link: https://bit.ly/2Cf5xQt
- Follow one or more links from within the article to the research the author relied on for her evidence.
- Write a guidance memo to the managers of a company you may work for addressing the do’s and don’ts of non-discrimination in the workplace with special attention to avoiding ageist bias.
Callaham, S. (2019, March 11). Alert: how common expressions can cultivate an ageist workplace. Forbes online: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sheilacallaham/2019/03/11/looking-for-a-digital-native-to-fill-a-vacancy-how-language-perpetuates-an-ageist-workplace/#7cfa73163371
Kurkela, M., Maksimainen, M., Julin, A., Virtanen, J-P., Mannisto, I., Vaaja, M., and Hyyppa, H. 2020 22 December. Applying photogrammetry to reconstruct 3D luminance point clouds of indoor environments. Architectural Engineering and Design Management. License: CC-BY-4.0.
Lambert, R. (2019). Biased language. Colorado School of Mines Writing Center. License: CC-NC-4.0. https://www.mines.edu/otcc/wp-content/uploads/sites/303/2019/12/OTCCBiasedLanguageLesson.pdf
Rockmore, E.B. (2015, October 21). How Texas teaches history. The New York Times online: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html
Schneider, K. (2020). Identifying your audience. Colorado School of Mines Writing Center. License: CC-NC-4.0. https://otcc.mines.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/303/2020/05/OTCCIdentifyingAudienceLesson.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Washington, D.C., 2010.