In formal writing, one of my pet peeves involves the misuse of prepositions. High on my list is the ubiquitous use of the word “on” to the exclusion of other, usually more accurate, prepositions.
“She spoke on the space shuttle.” Was she really aboard the space shuttle and delivered a speech to its crew”? Although we know what it means (she talked about the space shuttle), it’s likely misunderstood, at first. Understanding might require a re-reading, and one might wonder what other misleading or outright wrong statements the writing contains, compromising the writer’s credibility.
Such poor word choices are not so dire in casual conversation. However, in formal writing, this type of slip can affect understanding, job performance, and safety – safety of life and limb, facilities, or the environment.
An engineer told me that he remembers not knowing a thing about his first job out of college. He had the book learning but not the practical knowledge and experience that he needed. He could have made dangerous work decisions if the common belief “they’ll understand it” prevailed.
Poor, inaccurate word choices can confuse and cause mistakes by workers who misunderstand written instructions because they:
- Are new to the job or field (not everyone understands everything from day one),
- Have limited reading skills (they’re out there, effectively hiding their disability),
- Function (in the U.S.) with English as a second language,
- Won’t ask for clarification because they don’t want to be perceived as stupid, and
- Are reading a translation to another language, which is faulty or downright wrong because terminology did not translate accurately.
For technical documents (especially procedures and other work instruction), accurate word choices enhance understanding, efficiency, effectiveness, and safety. While eliminating the need to re-read passages, clear writing uses fewer words and is more engaging.
So, if your technical editor questions the phrasing or word choices of a sentence, paragraph, or section, help him or her in the goal of writing for readers’ understanding. If your technical editor attempts a rewrite that changes your meaning, understand that the original writing probably was confusing, and help him or her to rewrite for clarity.
Remember, communication is not simply conveying your message but is having your message received and understood. Your word choices can foster or inhibit understanding.
By the way, I wrote this article on about word choices on Thursday on using my computer.