J. D. Thomas on Writing


Function. A large group of intelligent and well-educated laymen occupies a position midway between the specialist and the man on the street. (Included in the group are many technical experts in certain fields, who may be only "intelligent and well-educated laymen" in other departments of scientific knowledge.) A substantial part of technical composition is directed to such persons. Reports, for instance, often are prepared by experts for consideration and action by industrial boards or public agencies having group authority, and perhaps wide individual experience, but lacking specific skill in the matter under consideration. A purely technical style might be a mistake in business correspondence concerning a specialized activity, such as a phase of engineering, when the addressee is not a professional colleague; neither may a "popular" manner of expression be warranted unless the addressee is wholly outside the industry. Many books, articles, and public lectures bring the scientific knowledge of experts to mature readers and audiences who have a good general education but little, if any, training in the subject under discussion. Efficient communication then depends upon a "middle" range of technical style.

Characteristics. On the whole, the structures of language in this style are more normal than in the two other basic technical styles. The extreme simplification and the sometimes awkward repetition required in popular treatments of science are not necessary. Reliance is placed less on avoidance of the proper idiom and nomenclature of the subject than upon definition and explanation. Occasional reference to a dictionary may be expected of the reader, but of course the writer does not display rare words by preference. Although such purely technical devices as equations, drawings, and graphs may be indispensable, they are not allowed to push the text altogether aside. Nearly always, a point made symbolically is also expressed in ordinary sentences.

Advantage for the course in technical English. The middle style is particularly advantageous for a course in technical English. It meets the frequent complaint by students of the sciences that their language teachers, being mainly interested in aesthetic literature, slight the subjects of most vital concern to the class. On the other hand, it does not confront an instructor with the task of marking papers that sometimes consist chiefiy of symbols rather than of ordinary language. The average student in a professional curriculum receives ample training in purely technical communication, such as the preparation of routine laboratory reports. The purpose of the class in technical English is to reinforce - not to duplicate - that work by concentrating effort upon general principles of logic, sound composition, and correct language in the service of scientific and technological subject matters. Very often, too, sections are not composed exclusively of students enrolled in the same departments of engineering or theoretical science. Through the medium of a middle technical style, members of a mixed group can improve their proficiency in English by writing and speaking, with full intelligibility to one another (and to the instructor), on topics within their respective fields of specialization.

J. D. Thomas, Composition for Technical Students (1965)

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