Avoiding Confusing Terms and Writing

Confused Man

Language Conveys Respect and Understanding

Language is obviously very important in communication, but as a technical writer, you have to be especially careful with your word choices, word order and phrases.  It is very easy for these elements to confuse the reader (thus, not respecting their time or capacities), insult the reader, or   obscure the main message of your writing piece.

It is important that the technical writer is aware of language to avoid in order to communicate clearly, to provide easy access to information, and to show respect to the reader.

Types of Language to Avoid

Avoid jargon. Technical jargon is used only if the writer is communicating with readers who are in specific trades and will understand the message. However, using jargon when communicating with readers outside of the trade will result in the reader having no reference to what the message is saying.

Example- The substance has a high vitriolic base. 

The average readers probably will not understand this message without looking up the definition of vitriolic. They might guess at the meaning to avoid looking it up, or falsely believe they know the meaning. Regardless, the unclear communication will impact the reader’s time and may have damaging effects.

Avoid double talk. Double talk is empty language. The writing is actually saying nothing. Double talk is used to fill space and is a clear indication the writer does not have a clear understanding of the issue or is trying to mislead the reader.  Intentional double talk is not ethical communication.

Example- The redistricting will neither affect our client demographics nor our individual client portfolios. The impact of the restructuring at the present time, however, is still undetermined.   We will let you know the impact as soon as it becomes apparent.  

Avoid sexist language. Sexist language is neither respectful nor politically correct. Using sexist language can alienate readers or result in lawsuits. Use gender-neutral terms or restructure sentences in order to avoid sexist pronouns, avoiding the use of the he/she combination pronoun.

Example- A driver needs at least 8 hours of sleep after he has driven for 8 hours.

Avoid biased language Do not indicate in any way a personal preference of one item, action, belief, position, etc. over another.  To avoid biased language, use objective language when writing, and avoid using subjective terms.

Objective terms produce a concrete (tangible) image. Objective terms allow the reader to form his own opinion.  For example- The cost of car is $60,000. The reader may think this is expensive or inexpensive.   

Subjective terms produce an abstract (intangible) image. Subjective terms sway opinion.  However, each reader interprets the term differently. Example- The car is expensive. Expensive to one reader may not be expensive to another reader.  The writer is not giving the reader information that will let the reader make a decision.

Avoid a negative tone– A negative tone is just as apparent in written communication as it is in oral communication. Using words or phrases with negative connotations can alienate readers and can inadvertently result in disrupting successful interactions.

Examples – Because you did not . . . .You were told . . . .I will not process the order . . . .

Avoid colloquialisms Colloquialisms are words or phrases specific to geographical regions.

Examples – Please leave the package on the stoop.     We need to replace the davenports.

Avoid idioms– Idioms are words or phrases specify to a particular culture.

Examples – We are working in the red.   We are working to the bottom line.

Be tactful Being tactful usually encourages readers to consider the writer’s position or request. Use a collegial tone. Using qualifying words such as it seems, you may consider, perhaps sends the message that the writer and the reader are equally important.

Use Repetition, Order, and Coordinate Structure Using repetition, order, and coordinate structure is important in technical writing.

Repetition means that the writer uses the same word or phrase to refer to a particular idea, item, action, etc. throughout a report. The technical writer does not use synonyms. A reader has a limited amount of time to read a document, and does not have time to try to figure out if the synonym means the same as the word or phrase previously used or if another idea has been introduced.

Order means that the writer uses the same term to identifying similar concepts.  For example, if the terms size, weight, density was used to describe one part of a mechanism, the same terms, size, weight, density are used to describe all parts of the same mechanism.

Coordinate structure refers to organization. All sections of a report must have the same structure. The major sections, subsections, sub points, etc. follow in the same order in all sections. Repetition, order, and coordinate structure provide readers with clear and easy access to information.

Many writers argue that the use of repetition, order, and coordinate structure is redundant. However, redundancy is entirely different.

  An Effective Way to Use Language and Write Clearly: Use the Active Voice Instead of the Passive Voice

Sketch of Singer

Most technical documents use the active voice since the active voice identifies the agent of the action (the person performing the action) as the subject of a sentence  while the passive voice identifies the object of the action as the subject of  a sentence.   The passive voice may identify the agent the action as a preposition phrase at the end of a sentence or omit the agent of the action from a sentence.

It’s important to write in the active voice because it moves the reader through the document easier and doesn’t drag on.  It is also a more dynamic and less confusing way of writing that most technical writers employ.  Since you are putting the agent of action up first and most likely using active verbs rather than passive verbs, the sentence structure reads more vibrantly.

Examples: (Different parts of the sentence are identified when you click on the orange font so you can better understand the examples). 

Active voice:  

The supervisor [BL1] enforces the dress code policy.  [BL2] 

Passive Voice:

The dress code policy [BL3] will be enforced by the supervisor. [BL4] 

The dress code policy [BL5] will be enforced. *[BL6] 

Unless the object (what needs to be done) is more important the agent of the action (the person making the request,) technical writers will write in the active voice.  Most of the time identifying the agent of the action the subject of a sentence carries more weight.  


 [BL1]Subject of the sentence. The agent of the action. The supervisor will enforce.

 [BL2]Object of the sentence. 

 [BL3]Subject of the sentence.  However, it is not performing the action.  

 [BL4]The agent of the action, However, it is a preposition phrase.  

 [BL5]Subject of the sentence.  However, it is not performing the action.  

 [BL6]The sentence does not identify the agent of the action.

For more information on active and passive voice, please click on the orange font in this sentence.

 There are other language techniques that will help you write crisply and effectively.  using concrete , sensory language, eliminating wordiness, and being careful about your word order also help.

You will also need to consider the structure that will best work for your piece of writing and audience.  We will discuss structure for each particular piece of writing in their respective chapters.