Technical language – Writing nightmare #10

Technical language – Writing nightmare #10

Roy Peter Clark in Writing Tools says that America is a nation of writers (and I think this can apply to every nation) because everyone has to write reports, memos, announcements and messages for business, professions, education. In his book Clark’s aim is to give writers of all kind the tools for a better writing, but his words made me ponder about language in general and technical language in particular.

It isn’t fiction writing so it doesn’t necessarily need to be particularly creative, but arid language can kill interest nonetheless. Technical documents are difficult to read because people who work in certain fields are obliged or feel obliged to use a convoluted language and a convoluted form. What if we could write about every subject without being necessarily restricted by what we think language ought to be?

Just think about laws.

This paragraph is from Directive 2001/42/EU of the European Parliament of the Council of 13 December on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment (just trying to understand what this is about requires a certain amount of patience).

Where a Member State is aware that a project is likely to have significant effects on the environment in another Member State or where a Member State likely to be significantly affected so requests, the Member State in whose territory the project is intended to be carried out shall send to the affected Member State as soon as possible and no later than when informing its own public, inter alia: (a) a description of the project, together with any available information on its possible transboundary impact; (b) information on the nature of the decision which may be taken. The Member State in whose territory the project is intended to be carried out shall give the other Member State a reasonable time in which to indicate whether it wishes to participate in the environmental decision-making procedures referred to in Article 2(2), and may include the information referred to in paragraph 2 of this Article.

If you read carefully the meaning is quite clear, but wouldn’t it be better this way?

A project carried out in a Member State can affect or have effects on the environment in another Member State. In these cases, the State where the project is intended to be carried out shall send information about the project to the affected Member State. That information must be sent as soon as possible and no later than when the State plans to inform its own public. The information about the project must include: (a) a description of the project, with any available information on its possible transboundary impact; (b) information on the decision which may be taken. The Member State which may be affected must be given a reasonable time to decide whether it wishes to participate in the environmental decision-making procedures.

The same happens with scientific language. Science is interesting, science is amazing, science is simple and complex at the same time. Science is everywhere and it’s beautiful… but most scientists are incapable of passing this on. Isn’t it frustrating that the beauty of science gets lost because of poor writing and complicated language?

When I was nineteen I went to University to study Chemistry. I was really interested in the subject, nonetheless some parts had been a real pain in the a** often due to the lack of examples and similes, the general abstraction of the topics and the convoluted forms. If the standard scientific language was able to numb young minds who were willing to learn, I can only imagine what it can do to someone who is not really into the subject!

For instance, let’s see what happens if I randomly choose a page from Chemistry portal in Wikipedia…

Chromatography (/ˌkroʊməˈtɒɡrəfi/; from Greek χρῶμα chroma “color” and γράφειν graphein “to write) is the collective term for a set of laboratory techniques for the separation of mixtures. The mixture is dissolved in a fluid called the mobile phase, which carries it through a structure holding another material called the stationary phase. The various constituents of the mixture travel at different speeds, causing them to separate. The separation is based on differential partitioning between the mobile and stationary phases. Subtle differences in a compound’s partition coefficient result in differential retention on the stationary phase and thus changing the separation.

Chromatography may be preparative or analytical. The purpose of preparative chromatography is to separate the components of a mixture for more advanced use (and is thus a form of purification). Analytical chromatography is done normally with smaller amounts of material and is for measuring the relative proportions of analytes in a mixture.


(thank you Wikipedia for being there while I was a student)

Already bored to death?

Let’s try again…

When you watch tv series and movies, it seems that chemists operate magic when they identify the parts of a mixture. A family of laboratory techniques for the separation of mixtures is called Chromatography, which literally means “to write with colours”. The components of the mixture are separated due to their different affinity to two different phases: the mobile phase, which is liquid or gaseous, and the stationary phase, which is solid.

Imagine a heterogeneous group of people walking down a street full of shop windows. At the beginning of the street they are a compact group but, after a while, some of them stop to watch the windows and they splits in smaller groups. Some of them won’t be interested at all in the shops, so they will reach the end of the street first; others will be somewhat interested and glimpse here and there, therefore they arrive second; the third group will be so interested in the windows that they will examine every shop and arrive last.

The heterogeneous group of people splits in smaller groups due to their different affinity towards the shops. That’s the same that happens in chromatography: substances, that are in the mobile phase, split in different groups depending on the affinity towards the stationary phase. Small differences in the way these substances are retained by the stationary phase result in the separation of components with different retention times.

This family of techniques can be used for preparation, in order to separate different compounds for other uses, or as an analytical method for measuring the different proportion of molecules in a sample.

Did I manage to keep you awake?

Of course this kind of explanation is not needed for communication between professionals in the same field, but wouldn’t it be great if publicity material could be written in a more becoming way?


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3 Replies to “Technical language – Writing nightmare #10”

  1. Oh, I agree with you. I work in health care and often type meeting minutes that must include clinical/medical language (benign or essential hypertension vs. high blood pressure.) And that is one of the easy ones. I also have to read the medicare documents and anything the government issues has to be convoluted. What I’m finding is that when writing about a medical condition in my novel, that I don’t get too clinical and make it boring to the average reader. 🙂

  2. I agree, Irene. Legal jargon, medical terminology, scientific vernacular… Sometimes I think they do it on purpose. But my sister-in-law (a lawyer) patiently explained to me that legal verbage is necessary for contracts to be legally binding. They look for certain words and phrases that mean something quite specific. Doesn’t make it easier for us, though. When I was a writer for an engineering firm, I thought I was going to pull my hair out half the time. They made things so much more difficult than it had to be.

    I’d love it if there was always a “translation” for lay people. Think of how many more children would go into scientific fields if the textbooks and online-articles were understandable and engaging!

    1. That’s exactly what I wanted to point out! It would be different if science could be understandable and engaging, as you say. 🙂
      Thank you for your comment!

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