This part of the appendix covers grammar problems involving the structure of a sentence as well as usage problems such as capitalization.
Modifier problems occur when the word or phrase that a modifier is supposed to modify is unclear or absent, or when the modifier is located in the wrong place within the sentence. A modifier is any element—a word, phrase, or clause—that adds information to a noun or pronoun in a sentence. Modifier problems are usually divided into two groups: misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers:
|Misplaced modifiers|| They found out that the walkways had collapsed on the late
(Was that before or after sports?)
The committee nearly spent a hundred hours investigating the accident.
(Did they spend even a minute?)
The superviser said after the initial planning the in-depth study would begin.
(Just when did she say that, and when will the study begin?)
|Dangling modifiers|| Having damaged the previous one, a new fuse was installed in the
(Who damaged that fuse?)
After receiving the new dumb waiter, household chores became so much easier in the old mansion.
(Who received the dumb waiter?)
Using a grant from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, a contraflow lane was designed for I-45 North.
(Who used that money?)
Pointing out the productivity and health problems plaguing US workers, aerobic fitness programs may become much more common in American industry, according to the spokeswoman.
(Who pointed that out?)
To correct misplaced modifier problems, you can usually relocate the misplaced modifier (the word or phrase). To correct dangling modifiers, you can rephrase the dangling modifier, or rephrase the rest of the sentence that it modifies.
|Revisions||On the late evening news, we heard that the walkways had
The committee spent nearly a hundred hours investigating the accident.
The superviser said that the in-depth study would begin after the initial planning.
Because the previous fuse had been damaged, a new one had to be installed.
Having damaged the previous one, I had to install a new fuse in my car.
After we received the dumb waiter, it was immediately installed.
After receiving the dumb waiter, we immediately installed it.
When the Urban Mass Transportation Administration granted funds to the city, planners began designing a contraflow lane for I-45 North.
Using a grant from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, city planners designed a contraflow lane for I-45 North.
Because of the productivity and health problems plaguing US workers, aerobic fitness programs may become much more common in American industry, according to the spokeswoman.
Pointing out the productivity and health problems plaguing US workers, the spokeswoman said that aerobic fitness programs may become much more common in American industry.
One particularly effective way to correct dangling modifiers is to create a summary appositive, that is, a noun or pronoun summarizing what was just said followed by an adjective clause:
|Dangling modifier problems||Summary appositive revisions|
|Stars that were formed relatively recently should have higher concentrations of heavy elements than do the older stars, which is confirmed by observation.||Stars that were formed relatively recently should have higher concentrations of heavy elements than do the older stars, a prediction that is confirmed by observation.|
|Most astronomers now believe that the energy of quasars comes from giant black holes in the cores of the quasars, which fits the growing belief that black holes are present in the cores of many galaxies, our own included.||Most astronomers now believe that the energy of quasars comes from giant black holes in the cores of quasars, a theory that fits the growing belief that black holes are present in the cores of many galaxies, our own included.|
Parallelism refers to the way that items in a series are worded. You want to use the same style of wording in a series of items—it makes it easier on the reader. Widely varied wording is distracting and potentially confusing to readers. Here are some examples, with revisions and some comments:
Problem: The report discusses how telescopes work, what types are available, mounts, accessories, and techniques for beginning star gazers. (The "how" and the "why" clauses are not parallel to the "mounts," "accessories," and "techniques" phrases.)
Revision: The report discusses how telescopes work; what types of telescopes, mounts, and accessories are available; and how to begin your hobby as a star gazer.
Problem: Customers often call the showroom to inquire about pricing, what items are available, and to place orders. (The "what items are available" clause does not go with the two phrases beginning with "to.")
Revision: Customers often call the showroom to inquire about prices, check on the availability of certain items, and place orders.
Problem: While the dialysis solution remains in the peritoneal cavity, the dialysis is achieved, a process that includes the removal of nitrogenous wastes and correcting electrolyte imbalances and fluid overloads. (The "removal" phrase and the "correcting" phrase are not parallel to each other.)
Revision: While the dialysis solution remains in the peritoneal cavity, the dialysis is achieved, a process that includes the removal of nitrogenous wastes and the correction of electrolyte imbalances and fluid overloads.
Problem: This report is intended for people with some electronics background but have little or no knowledge of geophysical prospecting. (The "with" phrase is not parallel with the "have little" clause—this one is not even grammatical.)
Revision: This report is intended for people with some electronics background but with little or no knowledge of geophysical prospecting.
Parallelism problems occur when different types of phrasing are used in the same areas of a document: such as for list items in a vertical list, or for all headings at a certain level within a specific part of a document. At times, working on parallelism of phrasing is pedantic and unnecessary. However, in many instances, parallel phrasing can give readers important cues about how to interpret information. A jumble of dissimilar styles of phrasing for similar elements can be confusing. Shown below are those different styles—don't mix 'em!
How are groundwater samples collected?
How should soil samples be handled?
Must monitor wells be used to collect groundwater for laboratory analysis?
What should the samples be analyzed for?
Method of groundwater sample collection
Soil sample handling
Purpose of monitor wells in groundwater collection for laboratory analysis
Purpose of soil sample analysis
Collecting groundwater samples
Handling soil samples
Using monitor wells in groundwater collection for laboratory analysis
Groundwater samples must be collected properly.
Soil samples must be handled using the specified method.
Monitor wells must be used to collect groundwater for laboratory analysis.
Samples must be analyzed for specific elements.
To collect groundwater samples
To handle soil samples
To use monitor wells in groundwater collection for laboratory analysis
To analyze samples
Collect groundwater samples.
Handle soil samples properly.
Use monitor wells in groundwater collection for laboratory analysis.
With subject-verb agreement problems, either a singular subject is matched with a plural verb, or vice versa. (Remember that some singular verbs end in -s.) Sometimes it's hard to spot the true subject, particularly in these cases:
- When several words come between the subject and verb:
Agreement problems Revisions The communications between the programmer and the rest of the company tends to be rather informal. The communications between the programmer and the rest of the company tend to be rather informal. The purpose of the monorails have changed from one of carrying food to one of carrying people to work in crowded urban areas. The purpose of the monorails has changed from one of carrying food to one of carrying people to work in crowded urban areas. The shortage of available infants and the availability of children with special needs has changed the focus of adoption for many parents. The shortage of available infants and the availability of children with special needs have changed the focus of adoption for many parents.
- When there are two or more subjects joined by and or or:
Agreement problems Revisions In the computer's memory is stored the program and the data to be manipulated by that program. In the computer's memory are stored the program and the data to be manipulated by that program. Either BASIC or Pascal are the high-level computer language you should take first. Either BASIC or Pascal is the high-level computer language you should take first. Skyrocketing charges for data preparation, the need to keep pace with rapidly increasing amounts of data, and requirements for fast system response has led to a search for more efficient input devices. Skyrocketing charges for data preparation, the need to keep pace with rapidly increasing amounts of data, and requirements for fast system response have led to a search for more efficient input devices. The magnetic-ink character-recognition device and the optical character-recognition device is two important advances in the preparation of batch input. The magnetic-ink character-recognition device and the optical character-recognition device are two important advances in the preparation of batch input.
- When the normal subject-verb order is inverted:
Agreement problems Revisions In the computer's memory is stored the program and the data to be manipulated by that program. In the computer's memory are stored the program and the data to be manipulated by that program. Introduced in 1968 by the Computer Machine Corporation was the concept of key-to-disk processing and the concept of shared processing. Introduced in 1968 by the Computer Machine Corporation were the concept of key-to-disk processing and the concept of shared processing. Equivalent to more than 3000 punched cards are the single diskette, first introduced in 1972. Equivalent to more than 3000 punched cards is the single diskette, first introduced in 1972. Through the center of the core runs several sense wires. Through the center of the core run several sense wires.
- When the subject is a word like each, every, none, either, neither, no one, and nobody, especially when followed by a plural object of a preposition:
Agreement problems Revisions Each of the steps in the process are treated in a separate chapter of this report. Each of the steps in the process is treated in a separate chapter of this report. Neither of the two high-level languages offer a facility for designing your own variables. Neither of the two high-level languages offers a facility for designing your own variables.
- When the subject is a phrase or clause acting as a unit:
Agreement problems Revisions Printing 54,000 chars. per 60 seconds were considered a high speed for printers at one time. Printing 54,000 chars. per 60 seconds was considered a high speed for printers at one time. Reversing the direction of currents through the wires change the magnetic state of the core. Reversing the direction of currents through the wires changes the magnetic state of the core. What is truly amazing about bits cells in integrated circuits are that 30 cells lined up side by side are about as wide as a human hair. What is truly amazing about bits cells in integrated circuits is that 30 cells lined up side by side are about as wide as a human hair.
Pronoun reference is an area that has caused international conflict and created major rifts in the women's movement—so don't expect this little section to explain it all. A pronoun, as you may know, is a word like "he," "they," "him," "them," "which," "this," "everyone," "each," and so on. It's like a variable in programming—it points to some other word that holds its meaning.
Problems arise when you can't figure out what the pronoun is pointing to (its "reference") and when it doesn't "agree" in number or gender with what it is pointing to. You may have experienced the first type of problem: you're reading along in some incredibly technical thing, and it up and refers to something as "this." You look back up at the sea of words you have just been laboriously reading through—you say "this what?!" You have just experienced one form of the pronoun-reference problem. Here's another example:
|Lasers have also been used to study the reaction by which nitric oxide and ozone make nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and molecular oxygen. It plays an important role in the chemistry of the ozone layer that surrounds the earth and protects us from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation. ("It" what?)||Lasers have also been used to study the reaction by which nitric oxide and ozone make nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and molecular oxygen. This process plays an important role in the chemistry of the ozone layer that surrounds the earth and protects us from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation. (Okay, now we see...)|
The second kind of pronoun-reference problem arises over lack of agreement between the pronoun and what it refers to. Here is one common example:
Problem: Motorola has just announced their new PowerPC chip.
Revision: Motorola has just announced its new PowerPC chip.
The problem here is that "Motorola" is a singular thing, while "their" is a plural thing—they don't agree in number! Now, maybe any dummy knows what's being said here, but this is imprecise writing, and it can lead to serious problems, given the right situation. Here is a second example:
Problem: These days, every student needs to own their own computer.
Revision 1: These days, students need to own their own computers.
Revision 2: These days, every student needs to own his or her own computer. (How politically correct...)
Revision 3: These days, every student needs to own a computer.
The problem in this example is that "student" does not agree with "their": one is singular; the other, plural. We have to search for the plural noun we think is being referred to by "their." Not a good idea in technical writing. As you can see from the revisions, there sometimes is no good way to fix the problem. (Things like "h/she" have pretty much been booed off the stage.) Whenever it works, try converting the singular noun to a plural—the plural pronoun will then be okay (but don't forget to change the verb to plural).
One of the very best discussions of the potential for sexist usage usage can be found in Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage. See the section on "Sexism."
Here are some additional examples (the referenced word is blue and underlined, the incorrect pronouns are red and italicized, and the correct pronouns are blue and italicized):
Problem: NASA hoped that, by using production tooling rather than by making each tool individually, they could save time and money.
Revision: NASA hoped that, by using production tooling rather than by making each tool individually, it could save time and money.
Problem: If an energy efficient system can be developed, electrical vehicles could become as popular as its conventional counterpart.
Revision: If an energy-efficient system can be developed, electrical vehicles could become as popular as their conventional counterpart.
Problem: Currently, Houston has $328.2 million in their 1984-1985 budget to help fund a new form of mass transportation.
Revision: Currently, Houston has $328.2 million in its 1984-1985 budget to help fund a new form of mass transportation.
Problem: Aerobic fitness programs help to improve an employee's physical condition by strengthening their circulatory, muscular, and respiratory systems.
Revision: Aerobic fitness programs help to improve employees' physical condition by strengthening their circulatory, muscular, and respiratory systems.
Problem: American industry should implement aerobic fitness programs for the betterment of their employees even if there is some opposition to it at first. (A double dose of pronoun-reference grief! It refers to what?)
Revision: American industry should implement aerobic fitness programs for the betterment of its employees even if there is some opposition to such programs at first.
Pronoun Case (Who, Whom)
Yes, you too can learn the proper usage of who and whom. (This will soon be an exciting new self-help seminar offered `round the country; look for it advertised late at night on a cable channel.) Who is used in the same slots that words like he, she, they, and we are used; whom is used in the same slots that him, her, them, and us are used. So if you can run a little replacement test, you can figure out which to use. Here's the test:
- Imagine that you start out with sentences like these (admittedly not an eloquent crew but they'll do):
It was the NBS engineers [who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's office contacted on July 17.
It was the NBS engineers [who, whom?] performed the tests on the walkways.
Send a copy of the report to [whoever, whomever?] wants one.
No one is sure [who, whom?] will be the next mayor.
It was the NBS engineers to [who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's office made the request for technical assistance.
- Now, strike out all the words up to the who or whom including prepositions:
It was the NBS engineers[who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's office contacted on July 17.
It was the NBS engineers[who, whom?] performed the tests on the walkways.
Send a copy of the report to[whoever, whomever?] wants one.
No one is sure[who, whom?] will be the next mayor.
It was the NBS engineers to[who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's office made the request for technical assistance.
- Next, juggle the remaining words so that they make a complete sentence:
Sen. Eagleton's office contacted the NBS engineers. The NBS engineers performed the tests on the walkways. [Who, whom] wants one? [Who, whom] will be the next mayor? Sen. Eagleton's office made the request for the technical assistance to the NBS engineers.
- If it sounds right to substitute I, he, she, they, we, use who. If it sounds right to substitute me, him, her, us, them, use whom:
Sen. Eagleton's office contacted them. => (whom) They performed the tests on the walkways. => (who) He wants one? => (who) She will be the next mayor? => (who) Sen. Eagleton's office made the request for the technical assistance to them. => (whom)
- Here are the results:
It was the NBS engineers whom Sen. Eagleton's office contacted on July 17. It was the NBS engineers who performed the tests on the walkways. Send a copy of the report to whoever wants one. No one is sure who will be the next mayor. It was the NBS engineers to whom Sen. Eagleton's office made the request for technical assistance.
This trick works without having to toss around terms like nominative case and objective case. (Incidentally, the third example, which contains "whoever wants one," is typically missed by people who pride themselves on their grammar. The rule about always using whom when it comes after a preposition does not work!
Caution: You can get whom exactly grammatically right but sound fussy and predantic. The famous day-time quiz show in which Johnny Carson got his start was called Who Do you Trust? not Whom Do you Trust?. You have to have an ear for the langauge. If it sounds fussy and pedantic to use whom, use who.
One of the big problems in technical writing involves capitalization. Technical people, developers, and other nonprofessional writers tend to use capital letters for everything that feels important—particularly the stuff that they've worked on. Problem is that this practice breaks all our standard capitalization rules and, more importantly, makes text harder to read. Most professionals in publishing, writing, and editing believe that excessive and unnecessary capitalization is distracting for readers. Capitalization should not be used for emphasis (use underscores or italics for that) or for really important things—instead, use special notices.
Capital letters should be used for proper names—formal, official names of things and people. For example, Tandem Corporation is a proper name; Mosaic is the proper name of a software product. However, a loose reference to the "development area" at IBM does not need caps; it's not the official name of that area. Similarly, MadCap Flare is a proper name, but not its grammar-checking feature. In technical writing, the impulse is often to use caps for the components of a thing—no! For example, if we were discussing the disk drive, the monitor, the CPU unit, the modem, the mouse, or the printer of a computing system, none of it should be capitalized. However, if we were talking about the the Dell NL40 Notebook computer, the Microsoft Mouse, or the IBM 6091 Display, then certainly caps are in order.
Of course, there are some exceptions. For example, in instructions, you want to reproduce the capitalization style shown on buttons, knobs, and other physical features of products as well as on the display screens of computer programs as they are shown on the hardware—but not if all caps are used. If I have a Service button on my computer, I'd write it as Service but not SERVICE, no matter how it is shown on the machine.
A common misuse of capitalization involves acronyms. You know that whenever you use an acronym in your text, you should spell it out first then show its acronym in parentheses. Writers often want to put the spelled-out version in initial caps; you would do so only if the spelled-out version were a proper name in its own right:
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed just after Word War II.
When you turn your computer on, it normally goes through a process called initial program load (IPL).
Here are the standard rules for caps:
- Use capital letters for names of people, races, cities, regions, counties, states, nations, languages, and other such proper names:
The Early Bird satellite was launched by Intelst, a consortium of Western countries including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Samuel Morse invented the coding system called the Morse code.
Among Muslims, Ramadan commemorates the first revelation of the Koran and is celebrated by fasting.
The population of Quebec is largely French speaking.
The Middle East, culturally speaking, refers to those lands in that part of the world that are predominantly Islamic in culture.
The Midwest includes Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska.
in her sophomore semester Gilda took English, French, astronomy, biology, geology and a special course called "Key Concepts in Western Science."
- Use capital letters for points of the compass only when they refer to well-established regions, but not when they simply refer to a direction of travel:
In the 1970s and 1980s, the major population and economic growth regions of the United States have been the South and Southwest.
The dam is located to the west of the city.
Oil imports from South America have been decreasing recently.
Drive ten miles north from Baldwin City, Kansas, and you'll be in Lawrence.
- Use capital letters for titles of offices when the title precedes the name of an officeholder but not when the title occurs alone. This rule is often ignored within organizations that need to use capitalize titles of positions. Another exception to this rule involves the president of the U.S.; some styles require this title to use a capital letter, even when it occurs alone.
The first electronic computer was assembled in the years 1940 to 1942 by Professor John V. Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, a student, at Iowa State University.
A professor and a student assembled the world's first electronic computer in the years between the wars.
In the U.S., the president holds the power of veto over any legislation passed by the Congress.
Last week, mayors from several cities in the region met to discuss an integrated system of health care.
- Use capital letters for academic subjects only when they are part of a specific course title or when they are derived from the name of a person, country, or language. (This capitalization rule often get bent a little in resumes and application letters. Typically, names of occupations and fields, and job titles get initial caps. By standard capitalization rules, that's not correct, but the usage is so strong in these two types of documents that it has become acceptable.)
She took a course in world history called "The Shaping of Western Thought" at Baker University in Kansas.
They consider Chemistry 301 a difficult course even though they are all chemistry majors.
This semester Majorie plans to take French, finance, and physics.
- Use capital letters for the days of the week, months, special days, and holidays—but not for the names of the seasons:
On Monday, July 24, 1978, they celebrated her birthday at a local restaurant.
Last fall they spent Thanksgiving in Denmark.
In the United States, the national independence day is July the Fourth; in Mexico, it's called Cinco de Mayo.
- Use capital letters for religions, religious groups, historical events, periods of history, and historical documents:
The telegraph played an important role in the Civil War.
The term Protestantism is used to distinguish this faith from the other major Christian faiths: Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
At the Casablanca Conference, the Allies agreed to continue the war until the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.
The Allies landed on Normandy Beach on July 6, 1944, a day known as D-Day.
The Great Depression in the United States was supposedly precipitated by the stock-market crash of 1929.
Under compulsion by English barons and the church, King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.
- Use capital letters for organization names (commercial, governmental, and non-profit) as well as their products and services:
In the late 1950s, the U.S. Department of Defense initiated a number of projects, such as Project Courier, which finally resulted in the Initial Defense Communications Satellite Program (IDCSP).
The IDCSP satellites were launched by the U.S. Air Force in 1966.
Saudia Arabia has its own air force and its own integrated defense system.
After the FCC's 1971 adoption of a "limited skies" policy, three domestic carriers initiated operations during 1974: American Satellite Corporation, a subsidiary of Fairchild industries, Inc.; Americom of RCA; and Western Union.
On March 24, 1980, Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh asked the Union of Concerned Scientists to make an independent evaluation of the krypton problem at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.
Recently, Apple Corporation introduced its Macintosh to compete with IBM's Personal Computer.
- Use capital letters for references to most numbered or lettered items (figures, tables, chapters, parts, volumes, rooms, buildings, etc.):
In Figure 3 a simple telegraph arrangement is shown. Unfortunately, this small amount of krypton is uniformly mixed with the roughly 2 million cubic feet of air in the sealed Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor containment building.
In this book, Chapter 6 discusses how to convert instructions written by engineers into instructions that can be read and understood by ordinary nonspecialists.
In Part I of this book, the basic patterns of technical writing and compared to those of traditional English composition.
- Use capital letters for objects that have individualized names:
The first operational communications satellite, Early Bird, was launched in 1965.
Until the Challenger space shuttle, expendable launch vehicles such as the Thor Delta, Alpha-Centaur, and Titan were used for launching space communications satellites.
The Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937 and it is one of the most extraordinary bridges in the world.
Dr. Smith has her offices in the Woods Building.
- Use capital letters for the earth, sun, moon, and universe when they are discussed with other celestial bodies or systems:
The Sun is 1.4 km from Earth.
The theory that the Universe is constantly expanding is based on the observation of red-shifts.
- Use capital letters for most acronyms, although a few such as ac and dc are not. When in doubt, check your dictionary. Use capital letters for the spelled-out version of acronyms only if the spelled-out versions are proper nouns in their own right.
In 1969, an experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) shattered protons with electrons.
In 1977 and 1978, NASA launched the first two High-Energy Astronomy Observation (HEAO) satellites to study black holes.
The "brain" of the computer is the central processing unit (CPU).
- Be careful about capitalization in headings and titles. Title case means using initial caps on all main words in a heading or title. Here are the standard rules:
- Capitalize the first and the last word of the heading or title, regardless of the type of word.
- Capitalize nouns, pronouns (e.g., It, They, Us), adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions (e.g., When, Because).
- Lowercase articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and, or, nor, but), and prepositions (e.g., to, from, of).
- Lowercase the "to" in an infinitive (Learning to Cook Spaghetti).
- Do not capitalize words based on length (as stated in the Chicago Manual of Style). This rule varies: IBM style, for example, wants initial caps on prepositions over 5 letters long (e.g., between).
- Capitalize hyphenated words in compounds (e.g., Character-Recognition Device). This rule applies to words normally lowercased (e.g., Using Your Built-In Microwave Oven) This rule varies too; some styles dictate lowercase.
Numbers vs. Words
In the section on hyphens, it was pointed out that worrying too much about hyphens will drive you crazy—so will numbers. The main hurdle to overcome is to learn that in technical contexts, we use numerals in text—even ones below 10—if they are critical values. In other words, we break the rules that are taught in regular writing courses and that are used in normal publishing and copyediting practice. That's because in the technical and scientific context, we are vitally interested in numbers, statistical data, even if it's a 2 or 5 or—yes—even a 0.
The difficulty is in defining the rules. You should use numerals, not words, when the number is a key value, an exact measurement value, or both. For example, in the sentence "Our computer backup system uses 4 mm tape" the numeral is in order. Also in "This recipe calls for 4 cups of unbleached flour." But consider this one: "There are four key elements that define a desktop publishing system." A word, not a numeral, is preferable here because—well, how to explain it? The number of elements is exact all right, but it's just no big deal. Four, five—who cares?
To summarize the rules that we normally apply:
- Don't start sentences with numerals—write the number out or, better yet, rephrase the sentence so that it doesn't begin the sentence.
- For decimal values less than 1, add a 0 before the decimal point: for example, .08 should be 0.08.
- Make a firm decision on how to handle 0 and 1 when they refer to key, exact values and stick with it. (Style varies wildly in technical writing on these two villains.) Some technical styles choose to use words for these; they resign themselves to the slight inconsistency but better readability.
- Use numerals for important, exact values, even when those values are below 10.
- Use words for numerical values that are unimportant, such as in the sentence "There are six data types in the C programming language."
- When you must use fractions, avoid the symbols that may be available in the character set used by your software. Construct the fraction like this: 5-1/4. Be sure and put the hyphen between the whole number and the fraction.
- It would be nice if all fractions could be reset as decimals, but such is not the case when you have things like 1/8 floating around. Stay consistent with either decimals or fractions in these situations.
- Don't make numerical values look more exact than they are. For example, don't add ".00" to a dollar amount if the the amount is rounded or estimated.
- For large amounts, you can write things like 36 million or 45 billion, but, for some reason, not 23 thousand.
- Apply these rules in specifically technical, scientific contexts only. Be sensitive to what the standard practices are in the context in which you are writing.
- As for percentages, Microsoft style says spell out "percent," and to avoid use of the symbol except, for example, to save space in tables. Use the word "percent" and insert a space between it and the numeral. Always use a numeral with percent, no matter how small the numeral. Use "percentage" as a stand-alone noun. For example, Over 15 percent of my income goes to pet food and A big percentage of my income goes to pet food.
Here are some examples where these rules are applied:
Some 19 million tons of sulphur dioxide are discharged from US sources alone each year, and another 14 million tons from Canada.(Using the number "19" and the word "million" indicates an approximate amount. "19,000,000" might make some readers think it was an exact amount.)|
It was not until after December 1952, when 4000 people died in London from air pollution in just a few days, that real gains in pollution-control legislation were made.
The US Army's standard airborne Doppler navigator weighs 28 lb (12.7 kg), requires 89 W of power, and operates at 13.325-GHz frequency.
All vitrain of the European classification, if more than 14 micrometers thick, has been regarded as anthraxylon.
In 1971, 11 countries accounted for about 91 percent of world production of coal.
The Department of the Interior has just published a report that reviews 65 different coal gasification processes.
Combustion turbines total about 8% of the total installed capability of US utility systems and supply less than 3% of the total energy generated.
Internal combustion engines in small power plants account for about 1% of the total power-system generating capability of the US.
The water-cement ratio will generally range from 4 gal of water per sack of cement to about 9 gal per sack. (These are exact values here; in technical writing, use the numeral even if it is below 10.)
The problem is located in piston number 6. (When there are enumerated items or parts, technical writing uses the number, as in this example. But notice that no "#" or "No." is used.)
The signal occurs in 6-second intervals.
The order is for 6-, 8-, and 12-foot two-by-fours.
Use Code 3 if a system shutdown occurs.
Mined coals commonly contain between 5 and 15 percent mineral matter.
The above illustration shows a 20-unit coaxial cable with 9 working coaxial pairs and 2 standby coaxials, which automatically switch in if the electronics of the regular circuits fail.
There are 59 different species of the coffee shrub, but only 4 are of commercial importance.
Most grinds of coffee contain particles ranging in size from 0.023 to 0.055 inches in diameter.
Using carrier frequencies between 0.535 MHz and 1.605 MHz in the US, AM broadcasting stations sprang up all over the country beginning in the 1910s.
As a base from which to work, 2-1/2 to 3 gal of water are needed for each sack of cement for complete hydration and maximum strength. (These are exact values; therefore, in the technical-writing context, we use numerals. Notice how fractional values are handled: put a hyphen between the whole number and the fraction to prevent misreading.)
The order for twelve 30-foot beams was placed yesterday.
The order was for 30 fifteen-gallon tubs.
They used six 8-pound sacks of nails.
The microprocessors of the 70s and 80s operated under the control of clocks running at 1 to 5 MHz, that is, 1 to 5 million counts per second.
Your eye has a bandwidth of 370 trillion Hz, the visible spectrum.
Transmission rates on ETHERNET range from 1 to 10 megabits per second (0.125 to 1.25 million bytes per second).
In 1978, the satellite carriers' revenues were about $88 million, and by 1986, they are expected to reach $800 million.
Most communications satellites are in geostationary orbit: at an altitude of 22,300 miles over the surface of the earth and at a distance of 26,260 miles from the center of the earth (the earth's radius being 3960 miles).
Aggregates constitute about 70 percent of a concrete mix.
Uniform compaction of 95% or better of standard AASHO densities is recommended.
In this book, Chapter 7 discusses the different audiences of technical prose and translation techniques for communicating effectively with the less specialized ones.
The wheels of the four-wheel tractor give it increased speed over the Crawler, but because of the weight distribution over four wheels rather than over two wheels or tracks, this vehicle has less traction.
Hundreds of thousands of people will have purchased microcomputers by the end of 1980. Tens of millions of them will bought them by the end of the century.
There are two telephones in service today for every three people in the US.
In 1965, Dr. Gordon Moore announced his "law" that the complexity of a chip would double every year for ten years. (Use the word "ten" here because it is not an exact amount.)
The typical stand-alone microcomputer system consists of seven physical components. (Use the word "seven" here because, even though it seems like an exact amount, it is not a key value. It doesn't have the same significance as the "7"would have in "7 quarts of oil.")
If you are using page-zero addressing, use a RAM for memory page zero.
Primary fuel cells are those through which reactants are passed only one time.
Before recharging, a zinc-carbon battery must have a working voltage not less than one volt. (Even in technical-writing contexts, rules for one and zero vary. Just pick a style and stay with it. Using the word "one" is the standard in this example.)
Japan has roughly one-third of the US production of dry batteries. (In running text, always write out fraction like this, and hyphenate them. However, you'd still write "5-1/2 inches.")
The radial fractures are so extensive that they are the dominant structural element over half of Mars's surface. (And just to be sure, "half" by itself in running text is always a word.)
A nanosecond is one-billionth of a second.
Inside the UP are three 16-bit registers. (When you have two separate numerical values side by side, one has to be a word, and the other a numeral. Styles vary here, but make the numeral the higher number. Contrast with the next example.)
Data from the frequency counter take the form of 16 seven-bit ASCII words.
Sales of batteries have increased from $510 million on the average during 1957-1959 to $867 million in 1966 and are projected to exceed $1.8 billion in 1980.
The speed of light is roughly 300 million meters per second.
Fifty-three representatives of different software development companies showed up at the meeting. (Never start a sentence with a numeral in any writing context. With this example, some rewriting might be a wise idea to get the numerical out of the beginning of the sentence, as in the following rewrite.)
At the meeting, 53 representatives of different software development companies showed up.
Symbols and Abbreviations
In technical-writing contexts, you may often have to decide whether to use " or ' for "inches" or "feet" or whether to use "inches," "in," or "in."
First of all, remember that symbols and abbreviations are distracting to readers; they are different from the normal flow of words. However, there are plenty of cases where the written-out version is more distracting than the symbol or abbreviation. Also, the context (specifically, technical or nontechnical) has a lot to do with which to use.
Imagine a technical document which has only one or two references to numerical measurements in inches. There is no reason to use symbols or abbreviations here—just write the thing out. But imagine a technical document with numerous feet and inch references: using symbols or abbreviations in this case is better, more readable, more efficient for both reader and writer. But which? Imagine the amount of foot and inch references there would be in a carpentry project (for example, a dog house). In this case, the symbols, " and ' would be greatly preferable. However, this would be an extreme case; otherwise, use the abbreviations.
When you do use symbols, especially for feet, inches, and some math symbols, use a symbols-type font. Avoid the "smart" quotes for feet and inches. Use the multiplication symbol for measurement contexts.
Which are the standard symbols and abbreviations to use? Go with the standards in the field in which you are writing, or with those found in a standard reference book such as a dictionary. Don't make them up yourself (for example, "mtrs" for meters)!
What about plurals? Very few abbreviations take an s to indicate plural: for example 5 in. means 5 inches. For the few that you think might take the s, check a dictionary.
What about obscure abbreviations and symbols? If you are concerned that readers might not recognize the abbreviation or symbol, write its full name in regular text and then put the abbreviation and symbol in parentheses just after the the first occurrence of that full name.
Here are some examples of abbreviations or symbols in text:
High resolution displays use larger video bandwidths, up to 30 MHz or more. |
Most touch-sensitive displays use a matrix of either LED/photodiodes or transparent capacitor arrays to detect a physical touch.
The part of the memory that is easily alterable by the operator consists of RAM chips.
A satellite in geostationary orbit looks at the earth with a cone angle of 17.3θ corresponding to an arc of 18,080 km along the equator.
The arc from 53θ W to 139θ W will cover 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) and is said to provide conus coverage.
Fairchild Industries, Inc., was an early participant in commercial satellites.
The voice was compressed from the usual 64-kb/s pulse code modulation (PCM) to 32 kb/s per channel by near-instantaneous companding (a modified PCM technique).
Terrestrial microwave radio communications require repeaters spaced every 20 to 40 mi from each other.
Over a period of several days the spacecraft is tracked from the ground and positioned on station (i.e., in the preassigned orbital spot) in order to commence operations.
A velocity increment of approximately 155 ft/s per year is required to correct drift problems in satellites.
The ancient battery-like objects made by the Parthians in 250 BC were thin sheets of copper soldered into a cylinder 1.125 cm long and 2.6 cm in diameter.
The standard electrodes are the normal and the 0.1 normal (N) calomel electrodes in which the system is Hg|KCl solution saturated with HgCl.
Such batteries contain 4400 cc of water in which NaOH is dissolved.
Water pressure in the heat recovery loop can be as much as 25 psig.
Quotations for phrasing and punctuation.
Single and double quotation marks for highlighting.
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