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Term talk.

This column discusses the words, phrases, and abbreviations found in technical documents. Comments, questions, and suggestions of terms for discussion are welcome. Address mail to Bldg. 202 (IPD), Argonne National Laboratory, 9700 South Cass Avenue, Argonne, Illinois 60439; phone (708) 252-3019. This work was not funded through Argonne National Laboratory.

A Word Too Many

I was editing a document in which a group was trying to define its mission, and the first sentence said something about studies that were "long-term, multidisciplinary, and generic." As I read through the remainder of the paragraph outlining the group's work, I couldn't recognize anything that gave the word generic some meaning. Because I hadn't worked much with these folks before, I took the straightforward approach: I went to the group's leader and asked exactly what, in the context of their work, generic meant.

After a few fumbled starts, his answer was that the group wanted to get across the idea that their work had a basic importance. When I suggested that fundamental might be a better choice, I was told no, that wasn't the right word. After my next questions elicited a pair of nonresponses, I said that I thought we should try to come up with a more meaningful and exact term for the lead sentence. A few moments of silence was followed by a classic reply: "Let's leave it. Don't worry about what it means--it sounds good."

In fact, many terms in technical and scientific writing fail in the same way. They are words that contribute nothing, and they are attached to phrases that are perfectly fine without the added words. Sometimes the needless words are there because the author failed to take them out in revising the first draft, and sometimes they were put there deliberately just because they "sound good." The words I want to discuss here are those general, abstract nouns that weaken the phrases they tag along with. Every field or discipline seems to have its favorites.

Medical Research

The catch word here is modality, as in "Our study involved the evaluation of two cancer therapy modalities." Sometimes this is a substitute for method or approach, but usually it's just an extra word to read (one the uninitiated must puzzle over). The authors could have stated with equal accuracy that they studied two "cancer therapies" or two "cancer treatments."


Engineers are partial to the words system and technology. For instance, in one report I read that "acoustic leak detection technology can be applied effectively to ... detect leaks in underground piping." At the bottom of the same page was a figure with a caption that was worded: "Acoustic Leak Detection for Underground Piping Systems." Now, the alternation from technology to system did save a repetition of the same word, which many writers believe is a major prose fault, and moving the general term from the acoustic detection phrase to the underground piping was a nice wrinkle--but neither of these terms was needed.

A case of double trouble was in the heading to this section of the document, which was "Acoustic Leak Detection System Concept." In fact, the section simply described the use of acoustics to locate leaks in underground pipes. Both system and concept were superfluous: a better heading was simply "Acoustic Leak Detection."

Another example is in this sentence: "An especially attractive feature of the process is the low detention time requirements in the reactor." The attractive feature referred to is the short time the reactants remain in the vessel. Requirements has no function in the sentence except to make it longer.

Biological Research

The word model is commonly used to refer to mathematical simulations of events, processes, or things. Biological scientists use the word in another sense: an animal model means that some animal--a mouse, perhaps--is being used to approximate the human response to some disease or condition. Now this is a perfectly reasonable phrase when referring to the concept of such an approximation, but it often becomes confusing when authors use it in speaking about the actual animals. Too often authors write something like "Results from our studies on the mouse model indicate. . .," when the wording should be "Our studies on mice indicate. . . ."

The imprecision is usually simple verbosity, but if the study involves some type of computer work, the potential for confusion increases greatly, and a close reading is needed to determine whether mouse model refers to a live animal or a computer program. (It could be worse, of course: If the studies were on the human model, the reader would have to decide whether the person's occupation could be a factor in the study.)

Finally, when model becomes tiresome, there is always the option of borrowing from the engineers, resulting in "Studies were conducted in the rodent system."


Too many scientists and engineers seem to believe that methodology is a major addition to their writing. Titles such as "Improved Methodology for Ultrafiltration Techniques" and sentences about "examining morphology by using optical and electron microscopy methodologies" abound in the technical literature.

Methodology has legitimate uses, of course, but for much technical writing, protocol is shorter and still "sounds good"--if that's what you're looking for in your prose. In the title above, neither word is required for either meaning or sound; either "Improved Ultrafiltration Techniques" or "Improved Method for Ultrafiltration" would have been a simpler and clearer title. In the sentence, "optical and electron microscopy" can stand on its own without trailing the baggage of methodologies.

Or One Word Less?

Now, I don't contend that any of the words I've mentioned can't be valuable if properly used. For instance, a report presenting an evaluation of possible ways to control sulfur emissions from an industrial plant stack discussed the "thorough technical and economic evaluation of all sulfur control technologies that could be applied. . . ." Sulfur control units or systems would not have been as accurate, because the options differed fundamentally in their chemistry and their engineering approach to removing the sulfur from the flue gas, not just in the type of equipment or its arrangement. Similar worthwhile usages of the other words can be found.

My objection comes when general nouns like technology or model are tagged onto phrases without thinking, or with thought only for their "sound" value rather than their value in conveying information. In writing or editing, see if you can't eliminate the unnecessary uses of such words; your prose will be clearer, your document will be shorter, and your reader will understand your points more easily.
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Title Annotation:definition of selected technical words
Author:Nadziejka, David E.
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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