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A choice of words

The Oxford English Dictionary defines over 600,000 words used in written English since the 12th Century. Of these, about 450,000 are still in use. According to Robert Claiborne (The Roots of English) Russian speakers, for example, make do with something more than a quarter of that number, 120,000; French speakers with a third. This is not so much a boast to boost the stature of English as a statement of fact. One need take no particular pride in claiming English as one's native tongue, which is inherited by most English-speakers as an accident of birth.
These numbers and comparisons are made to interest those who work in fields of industry and science plagued if not obsessed with figures, probability calculations and statistical analysis. On reflection, we are here dealing with an excessively large number of words in the English language with which few of us can hope to become familiar in a lifetime of listening, speaking and reading.
It is also of interest to note that William Shakespeare made much ado with as few as 25,000 words in his entire body of work. In contrast, and statistically, the average engineer and scientist on graduation from university, has an average vocabulary of about 45,000 words. Going from my experience in the nuclear industry, this number is more than adequate to write a persuasive report or technical paper provided the writer is clear about the topic about which one is to write.
If anyone is looking for a lesson in writing success let it be in how to write in plain and simple English. Easy reading is more often the result of effort to make the reading easy. Here if anywhere in this introduction to technical writing is the central theme. That is, simple writing is specifically simple language written in a simple style. Grammar and syntax are, of course, important to language, but learning how to organize and present information clearly and concisely in plain English are of chief importance.
Expressing oneself in the simplest English does of course mean obeying the basic rules of grammar, which someone no doubt will happily remind me I undertook not to discuss. The rules to be emphasised have to do with the discipline of writing. Nevertheless, the central rule of any style of writing - and certainly in the technical field - is to write with clarity. Clear, concise writing means clear, concise and logical reasoning. To be discussed in due course is what is meant by clear, concise and logical reasoning will be discussed shortly. Before dealing with that interesting aspect language it is necessary to dispel some myths that surround the act of writing.
Myth number one is that writing cannot be taught. That is nonsense. It is not possible to confer the genius of Tolstoy, Dante or Shakespeare on anyone, for genius is a gift with which a person is born, but it is possible to teach one how to write; even the greatest writers had to learn that discipline.
Number two is that there is such a thing as technical writing; there isn't, not as a separate and distinct kind of writing anyway, so the basis on which these papers were begun, meaning 'technical writing', is somewhat of a deception. Technical writing is simply applying to technical subjects the technique of research and organisation. This demands of the would-be writer the same skills any writer brings to the task of writing. When therefore I refer to novelists or poets or playwrights, do not be deceived into thinking there is a wandering from the narrow focus of the subject. This means discussing good and bad writing, bad in the sense of sloppiness, loose and inaccurate writing.
Myth number three is that the longer the sentence, or the longer the word, the more important it must be. The very opposite is true as will shortly be demonstrated. Short words are almost always more powerful than long words.


English is a mongrel tongue made up of words and phrases thieved without embarrassment from many tongues. It is, to express it another way, a polyglot language meaning 'many tongued' (poly from the Latin for many, and glot, meaning tongue). Robert Claiborne wrote that the English vocabulary has been plundered from every other tongue on earth so that, for example, we get alcohol and alkali from Arabic; bizarre from Basque; coach from Hungary, parka from the Urals; khaki from Urdu; taboo from Tahiti; and okay from West Africa. Examples of such borrowings are endless.
From this it is clear that modern English has many ancestors. Even so, the English vocabulary comes from two main sources, what might be regarded as parents of the language: one, the terse and simple Anglo-Saxon farther; the other, the Latin-based, romantic mother. This second one is known as Romance English. If those working in the applied sciences learn nothing else but how to recognize the difference between Anglo-Saxon and Romance English they will have overcome a major obstacle to writing in plain English. To be understood in both the spoken and written word, one must know the difference between these two main streams of the language.
Some authorities of language including Claiborne regard Greek as a third and dominant source of words in English. This is true, but because the Latinos imported a vast number of words from the language of Classical Greek, that language might be regarded as part of the Romance strain of the language. So important to good writing is the value of
It is worth dwelling a little longer on the roots of modern English. In doing so, one offers a different approach to the use of language than that of most textbooks, which is particularly important to the technical writer. Why?
Because standard texts emphasize grammar and syntax. This is fine for those who study language in an academic way. The remarks here offered on the subject are addressed to those who already have a good working knowledge of English. The aim is therefore to give those to whom these notes are directed a more lively sense of the roots of English. That is because this approach helps engineers and scientists achieve a more simple writing style.
To this end, the accompanying graphic (right) of the 'English language tree' illustrates the roots from which modern English originated and the main branches into which it has grown. This is a simplistic one, but aptly describes the roots and main branches the language tree has spread. It has the strength of a sturdy oak with deep roots, a thick trunk and sturdy branches. Also, like any tree, it puts out shoots that seem young and vigorous when they first sprout, but soon whither and die. These are the suckers of the language tree, more commonly known as the slang, cant or jargon of specialized groups such as, surprisingly, teachers, bureaucrats, and politicians. Part of our task is to show that this kind of specialized language has no lasting value as part of the main stream of spoken and written communication.


Anglo-Saxon English is the taproot of the language, easily recognized by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the language. Its main characteristic is that words of this root are mostly, but not always, of single-syllable shape, structure and pattern. Single-syllable words are monosyllabic, meaning one-syllable. Words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are concrete and objective in meaning and are hard to mistake. They are like solid red bricks that lend themselves to almost any sort of grammatical construction and are the main reason why English is one of the world's most widely used and clearly understood languages.

To illustrate this point, consider the sentence, 'The cat sat on the mat.' This statement of such disarming simplicity might be thought to have no place in a discussion on technical writing. Yet it illustrates and important point. The statement can be rendered in several difference ways without essential loss of meaning. That is:
On the mat the cat sat
Sat the cat on the mat
The cat sat on the mat
The cat on the mat sat

thereby amply demonstrating the flexibility of the language.

Anglo-Saxon words such as ale, arm, oak, ash, ax, bake, bark, barn, cap, carve and choke through to wade, wake, yard, yell and yet are as numerous as grains in a granary. When you hear the couplets
The work is hard, the pay is small,
So take your time and damn them all,
For he who strives to do his best
Goes down the road just like the rest
you may be sure that you are hearing near pure Anglo-Saxon English.
The masters of letters have a lot teach us in their use of plain, straight-forward language. It is no mystery that when they need a powerful opening a play or prose they employ monosyllabic language to give extra weight to the thoughts they express. For example, listen with an inner ear to Antonio's opening speech in The Merchant of Venice. Antonio declaims:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or come by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities with the statement, 'It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.' The reader immediately feels from the power of the simple language that intriguing story is about to unfold.
The works displaying striking examples of Anglo-Saxon English are many and not confined to classical literature. In his introduction to quantum mechanics, Paul Davies, the physicist and writer, in Superforce, writes, 'It is often said that there are two types of science, big science and little science. Atom smashing is big science. It use big machines and big budgets, and nets the lion's share of Nobel prizes.' Davies is a scientist. His writing is technical writing at its best: complex material presented in the plainest of plain and simple English. Einstein, who gave us the theory of relativity was exceptional in his use of clear and precise language. Carl Sagan too, another physicist, use simple language to explain the nature of the universe in his book Cosmos.
Short, monosyllabic English makes the reader pay attention. The best playwrights, novelists and non-fiction writers grab the reader's attention with the use of plain English. This then is the first lesson technical writers, engineers and scientists must learn. Whatever discipline they follow or seek to explain, they will improve their ability to convey their thoughts and ideas if they choose the more simple Anglo-Saxon words to express themselves. However this is not to deny the importance of that other main root that has helped make English a strong and versatile language - and here is why.


On to the Anglo-Saxon root were grafted words and phrases of Latin origin. These were brought to English first by the Roman Legions of the Emperor Augustus and then by scholars and priests of the Church of Rome. Later still, in the year 1066, another strong infusion occurred from what we call the Romance root; that is, words of French origin shaped in their formation by a blend of Latin and Greek words.
The main feature of Romance English is that its words are of polysyllabic construction; that is, 'many' from 'poly' with which we met earlier in the word 'polyglot'; and 'syllable' from 'syllabic' meaning in the combination 'polysyllabic' many syllables.
Quite apart from this difference in the number of syllables, words of the romance root tend to be abstract as opposed to the more concrete Saxon words. This makes Romance English ideal for abstract discourse. In Romance English it is possible to discuss concepts that do not correspond to a visible thing or event and to treat them as though they do, which is a major contribution to the strength and power of the language.
For example, the Latin word for 'true' is 'verus', which becomes the more abstract English word 'verify', meaning 'to prove true' and ultimately ends as 'verification', meaning the act of proving true'. Verification is a word used with increasing frequency in our technological society. One of the major problems in U.S.-Soviet disarmament discussions and with the North Korea nuclear programme was, and is, a 'verification procedure', which is simply another way of saying, 'Prove you're not lying.'
Verification however is a word so abstract that it can conjure up not picture in the mind, though it is grammatically a noun and is, therefore, supposed to stand for a person, place or thing. The Anglo-Saxon root is not so easily distracted from its path through the good earth. To the Anglo-Saxon, a 'spade' remains obstinately, a 'spade'.
Verification and it companions specification, procedure, hospitalization, identification, and objectification are typical of the words that have joined modern English from the Latin. They are all polysyllabic in structure. It is worth dwelling on the difference between these two main streams of English.


The word 'electrical' is derived from the Greek word 'eletron' meaning amber. Amber was found by the Greeks to produce static electricity when rubbed. Left to develop without the influence of Roman English, Anglo-Saxon might have given us 'ghost-fire' instead of electricity.
If ghost-fire seems far-fetched, consider the word 'mechanical', which is of both Latin and Greek origin. The original measure of mechanical power was 'horse strength'. Imagine an exchange between George Stevenson and a farmer when he stopped his steam engine The Rocket to take on water.
Did the farmer say, 'Strong engine, eh?' and George proudly reply, 'About twenty Clydesdales,' to which the farmer could have countered with a whistle of amazement, 'Twenty horses? That be some horse strength.'
During the industrial revolution, horse strength actually entered the language as 'horse power' and gave sterling service until the coming of metrication and the assault of System Internationale (SI) units on Imperial measure. The loss of 'horse power' as a term descriptive of machine power will a loss to many of the older generation of engineers. Perhaps the coming of kilopascals to replace units of horse power will enhance in its own way the melody and cadence of the language.
If it is not already obvious, one might ask what this difference between Anglo-Saxon and Romance English has to do with the use of language by engineers and scientists in technical writing. The answer is the subtle distinction that affects one's ability to communicate with the written word. That is, although Romance English lends itself to elegant writing, concrete, direct and emphatic Anglo-Saxon English is essential to the understanding of technical literature.
In a conscious effort to appear more learned, those who make excessive use of Romance English tend to lapse into writing and speaking jargon - to be dealt with more fully shortly - which inhibits the reader's or listener's understanding. Specialists often express themselves in elitist language, which becomes an intimidating weapon to people who do not belong to a particular discipline or sect. This is no doubt acceptable to those in the know, but is received as gobbledygook by those outside the circle. For example, the educational psychologist might say, 'John's behaviors are inappropriate to the classroom setting,' which is a foreign language to most parents of average education. In plain language, the psychologist is saying, 'John is an ill-mannered child who disrupts the class.'
To illustrate the difference between the two main roots of the English language obscure language, consider the two verses following and decide who, hearing for the first time, would remember or grasp the meaning of the opening verse.
Scintillate, scintillate global griphic
Fain would I fathom thy capacious specific:
Loftily poised in the ether capacious
Like a gem so carbonaceous.

Compare this with the following version and decide which is the more expressive.

Winkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are;
Up about the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.
(Ann and Jane Taylor - 1808)

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