Key Words: technical writing
Learner English Level: Advanced
Learner Maturity Level: Adult
Preparation Time: dependent on selection of original texts
Activity Time: dependent on selection of original texts
Writers of English for Science and Technology (EST) often simply edit for grammar and syntax, overlooking issues of coherence, topical structure, and organization--issues which are important in helping the reader to comprehend highly technical texts. Recent research in discourse analysis provides EST teachers with principles that they and their students can use in revising technical texts for coherence. Writers can build coherence by (a) locating information within the text in places where readers can find it easily, and (b) clearly indicating to the readers relative importance of given information. The following principles from research on coherence and discourse analysis have proven useful to our students as they write and revise their technical and scientific texts.
Principle # 1: Within each sentence, order information so that old or given information comes before new or unknown information, to provide a context for the new information (Weissburg, 1984). With this principle, important new information is presented in stress positions in the sentence, e.g., at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning, and in main clauses instead of subordinate clauses or modifying phrases (Gopen & Swan, 1990). For this first example, consider what works well in the following sentences:
A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. This principle, however, is not always true at rush hour in downtown Tokyo, when you're trying to get from your hotel to the restaurant down the street.
Analysis: The underlined clause in the second sentence refers us back to the (old) information in the first sentence, and prepares us for the new information in the second half of the sentence. If we rearrange the information in the second sentence, the reader has to wade through several chunks of new information before the relationship between the two sentences is revealed:
A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. However, when you're trying to get from your hotel to the restaurant down the street at rush hour in downtown Tokyo, this principle is not always true.
When the information being communicated is highly technical, the ordering of given and new information is important. For another example of what happens when this principle is flouted, consider the following, taken from a paper on steel fabrication:
In addition to the factors discussed in the previous sections, the dynamic behavior of the flattened plate in relation with its position in the leveler is also another important factor in determining the final flatness.
Analysis: The reader has to wade through the long phrase about the flattened plate's dynamic behavior before realizing that it is being presented as an additional factor (the context for this information). Revise by switching the predicate nominative to the subject position.
In addition to the factors discussed in the previous sections, another important factor in determining the final flatness is the dynamic behavior of the flattened plate in relation to its position in the leveler.
In long paragraphs of such sentences, full of new ideas and technical concepts, the ordering of given and new information can make or break the reader's comprehension.
Principle #2: Place subjects and verbs close to each other (Gopen & Swan, 1990). Readers identify the subject of a sentence and look for the verb that goes with it. Since short-term memory is limited, we may forget the subject of the sentence before we get to the verb. And, since we are focusing on the verb, we may skip intervening information until we reach the verb. So, if writers include important information between subjects and their verbs, readers may miss that information looking for the verb, or perceive that information as less important. Consider the following example:
The present state of the theoretical basis of adsorption dynamics of multicomponent mixture with account for thermal effects accompanying adsorption is presented.
Analysis: By the time the reader gets to the verb "is presented", the subject "present state. . ." may have been forgotten. Inversion (moving the verb nearer the subject) also invokes Principle 1 as the given, context information is placed at the beginning and the new, most important information ("with account for thermal effects accompanying adsorption") is moved to the end of the sentence, in a stress position.
Presented here is the current theoretical basis of adsorption dynamics of multicomponent mixture with account for thermal effects accompanying adsorption.
Principle #3: From sentence to sentence, order topics logically, usually placing the main topic of discussion in the subject position (Huckin & Olsen, 1991). This principle comes into play mainly at the paragraph level, and is important in signaling the relative importance of information. Since we unconsciously assign the most importance to main clause information, we focus on the subject as the main topic under discussion. When a new topic is introduced in the subject position, we understand that the focus has shifted away from the topic of the previous sentence. Confusion can occur when the writer intends to remain focused on one topic, but sends conflicting signals by switching topics in the subject positions of sentences, as shown below:
(1) A technological Incubator was created in _____, Brazil, in 1986. (2) Local observation and interviews with owners and employees of the incubating companies were conducted during a period of one month in order to establish the characteristics and the shared services available. (3) One of the companies, Company A, which after incubating for six years, was at the stage of leaving the Incubator, was analyzed in more detail and two of its customers were asked to evaluate the potential of Company A's main product, a data logging system, within the now-open Brazilian market.
Analysis: Several principles are flouted in the example above; for example, subjects and verbs are disjointed in sentence 2, and important information is buried in subordinate clauses at the beginning of sentence 3. Yet there is another problem for the reader, the focus of the paragraph jumps from the Incubator, to the interviews, to the companies themselves. Careful revision can create a more logical flow of topics from general to specific: from the Incubator, to its companies, to a subset of the companies, and finally to one company and its customers.
(1)A technological Incubator was created in _______, Brazil, in 1986. (2) Owners and employees of the incubating companies were interviewed and observed during a one-month period in order to establish the characteristics and shared services available. (3) One of the companies was analyzed in more detail. (4) Company A was ready to leave the incubator after incubating for 6 years. (8) Two of its customers were asked to evaluate the potential of Company A's main product, a data logging system, within the now-open Brazilian market.
Principle #4: To guide readers through lists, use parallel forms both within and between sentences where appropriate (Huckin & Olsen, 1991). If we teach students to edit for mistakes in parallel forms this may result in ungrammatical sentences. Sometimes, however, even grammatical sentences can be made more comprehensible through the use of parallel forms:
Most companies surveyed considered that more support from the government is necessary, even after leaving the Incubator. As an alternative, the period for which the company could stay in the Incubator should be extended from 8-10 years.
Analysis: Because the two alternatives are buried in two sentences of differing structures, the contrast relationship is not readily apparent. The relationship can be highlighted by combining the sentences and framing the two alternatives as "for"-prepositional phrases modifying the noun "need." Of course, in doing so Principle 3 is also invoked, as the companies now remain clearly the main topic of discussion.
Most companies surveyed saw a need either for continued government support even after the company leaves the Incubator, or for an increase in the number of years a company can remain in the Incubator, from the 9 years currently allowed to 10 years.
We have found that these principles of coherence are much more readily grasped when presented in the context of the texts our students read and write daily. We put examples (good and bad) of the principles in action on an overhead projector, and discuss them as a class. Our students report that they now regularly consider issues of coherence when drafting and revising their technical texts, and view grammar not as an end in itself but rather as a strategy for writing coherently and effectively.
Connor, U., & Johns, A. M. (Eds.). (1990). Coherence in writing: Research and pedagogical perspectives. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
Gopen G. D. & Swan, J. A. (1990). The science of scientific writing. American Scientist, 78, 550-558.
Huckin, T. N., & Olsen, L. A. (1991). Technical writing and professional communication for nonnative speakers of English (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Weissburg, R. C. (1984). Given and new: Paragraph development models for scientific English. TESOL Quarterly, 18, 485-500.