Grammar for Grownups

Learning the right terms and the correct ways to use them is serious business for today's engineer

English is a complex language. Among its many words are those that are spelled the same, pronounced the same, yet have different, sometimes opposite meanings. Examples: The community sanctions engineers by giving them a license. The community also sanctions engineers by revoking their license.

Our language also includes hundreds of words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, with different meanings. Wound and wound come to mind, as in “He wound up healing the wound.” So, too, do close, produce, and record.

How about hazardous homophones; words that are pronounced the same, but with different spellings and meanings? Tops on most hazardous homophone lists would be affect and effect, given that each represents several nouns and verbs with distinct meanings. Compliment and complement would also appear, along with too, to, and two; its and it’s; ad and add; canvas and canvass, et al.

Slipshod synonyms merit a nod, of course, with imply and infer, appraise and apprise, doubtful and dubious, e.g. and i.e, and ensure, insure, and assure typifying the genre. Closely related are words with more than one meaning that are used instead of other words that create less confusion; e.g., since or as vs. the far better because.

Too many formalities
I feel compelled to add a comment about those awful words and phrases someone decreed to be “formal.” Take regarding, for example, and its ilk: in regard to, with regard to, and with respect to. Is something wrong with about? Ditto provide with pretending to be give with a tux on, and however parading as but in patent-leather slip-ons.

The passive voice falls into the “formal” category, too, it seems. It’s not how technical professionals think. It’s not how they speak. (Imagine if it were: “Greetings, spouse. The home has been arrived at by me.”) But goodness knows, it’s how all too many of them write, sometimes because sadly misinformed client representatives and/or firm principals believe that’s how technical professionals are supposed to write. Wrong! English is English. The passive voice can be awful English because it’s convoluted, generates confusion, and permits omission of important information (like the subject of the verb, which is why it’s called passive). The passive voice is not “scientific style.” It’s just plain bad writing.

(Also bad: “academic style,” a characterization that somehow glorifies the barely intelligible. And let’s not overlook “legalese,” the style that has given us gems such as “fullest extent of the law.” Look: If I take two identical glasses and fill them absolutely full with water, which is fuller? A silly concept, isn’t it? One cannot be fuller than another; full is full, because “full” is an absolute word. That being the case, were I to fill 10 identical glasses with water, which would be fullest? None; i.e., “fullest” is not a word, because something cannot be more full than full. So should it be “full extent of the law”? No! “Extent” is an absolute, too. The extent of anything is, by definition, its full extent or, if you will, fullest extent. Which is why “compliance” means “full compliance” and why “full-service firms” do not actually exist [their Web sites notwithstanding].)

You also need to know about taboo words; they’re not what they seem. How often are you asked to certify this or that? Did you know certify means guarantee, and the liability exposures it can create are, for the most part, uninsurable? Do you know why safety is taboo? Inspect? Monitor?

Extraneous terms
And let’s not forget useless modifiers, like different: “We offered 10 different solutions to the client” is exactly the same as “We offered 10 solutions to the client,” given that, were two of the 10 not different from one another – i.e., the same – “we” would have offered only nine solutions. Another favorite: “Our lines are currently busy.” As opposed to when, if not currently? Yesterday?

We also have useless modifiers like very and quite, which are actually worse than useless, because they are subjective; i.e., my very and your very may differ significantly. When they do, we will miscommunicate. Attach one of those words to another subjective modifier and you get “very cold,” “quite tall,” “extremely stout,” and so forth, making miscommunication almost inescapable.

So what’s my point? Try this:

When a project develops a problem that leads to a claim, the claim usually is filed two or more years after the fact. When the claim goes to litigation, the disputants initiate a process called discovery, beginning with mutual (subpoenaed) file review. If the files reveal nothing attorneys can hang their adversarial hats on, the whole shebang may end there.

That seldom happens, however, because files almost always contain something clever lawyers can use. Why? Because the files contain written documents that convey words and, more often than not, the words can have more than one meaning. Slipshod language may be forgivable when it comes to a contractor’s “field guy,” but not so when the author is a licensed professional whose every word is equivalent to a number.

“I’m no English professor,” engineers, geologists, and others often say in response to my brow-beating. But society doesn’t expect you to teach English; just write it unambiguously. Given how complex our language can be, however, and given the bad, bad habits you’ve probably gotten yourself into over the years, writing well is harder than it may seem. Help yourself first of all by trying to simplify. Rely on sentences that begin with the subject, then move directly to the verb, followed by the object or, in the case of intransitive verbs, followed by a prepositional phrase; e.g., “John runs the project” and “John runs around the block,” respectively.

If you’re a technical professional, all of this sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps, harkening back to “stuff” that you kind of learned in grade school, but weren’t that interested in. You liked math and science and may even have found them to be a refuge from the humanities. Only now have you come to realize that not only must you write, but the penalties you face for not writing well, for being ambiguous, can be far harsher than the penalties faced by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters. When they get their facts wrong, they are forced to prepare a correction. Boo hoo. When you get your facts right, but report them poorly, you could be facing a multimillion-dollar claim and scores of sleepless nights.

Clearly, the simpler you write, the less likely it is that you will muck something up. But do not overlook the fact that even the simplest, most straightforward style requires that you know some basics of spelling and grammar. I understand that a spelling-and-grammar bee may not be something you look forward to, even if it’s accompanied by pizza and beer after the workday is done. But face it: It’s a lot more pleasant to learn in that environment than in court. What you don’t know can hurt you, especially when you have to learn what you don’t know the hard way. Relearn the basics. Simplify. It’s your risk.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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