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“Fluff, Hookie, and Piffle”: The Academic Style in Technical Communication

By Thomas Barker | STC Fellow

This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at ttbarker@ualberta.ca.

 

The three words in this column’s title are all taken from the professors’ comments on papers I wrote as an undergraduate student. These comments highlighted what continues to be a problem in academic (and all) writing: Too many words and not enough meaning.

This column is in response to a conversation that emerged in the STC Academic SIG discussion list. One SIG member remarked: “Why do academics/educators insist on writing—regardless of audience demographics—in the same style they were required to write for [in] their dissertations and the like?” The question is fair enough: Academic writers should know how to write for different audiences. The requirement should sink in. We are fortunate in the Academic SIG discussion list to have participants like this person and others who persist in following up on their passion for language and writing and their commitment to effective communication.

This article explores the academic style as a matter of what is sometimes called register and looking at how register helps us understand the communication breakdown, or dissonance, between academics and technical communicators. Knowing the mysteries of register can be helpful in a multitude of communication situations.

The Academic Style

The issue of academic style refers to diction, sentence length, and tone that comes across as stiff, formal, and wordy. Here is a made-up example of the academic style:

Scholarship in communication, as well as best practices in the discipline, suggest that opening a file using the menu command “open” is a paradigmatic response in computer-based work that, properly imbricated throughout an organization, has an ontological effect on the way organizations share information internally. Thus, for users in this environment, cultural and operational identity and functionality parallel the concept of “openness” and “security” inscribed in computer support discourse.

This example is extreme, but it shows some familiar, irritating touch-points:

  • The term “paradigmatic” (my spell checker doesn’t even recognize that word) rather than “usual”
  • The long, complex sentences
  • The stuffy repetitions of synonyms using “and” in the second sentence

These examples contrast with clear technical writing, or as the inquirer in the SIG list said, “Have the ideas of ‘people first,’ active voice, ‘less (words) is more,’ and ‘plain or universal English’ just not pierced your professional ranks?” Using technical communication style we might just say, “Choose Open from the File menu.”

These are strong assertions, but I admit I deserve them sometimes. Recently a colleague advised me to cut the jargon and come up with some clear examples, as a way of improving a scholarly paper. Interestingly, I was not told to use bigger words or long formal sentences. As a matter of fact, Joseph Williams, in Lessons in Style and Grace (University of Chicago Press, 1990), points out that it’s not the length of the sentence, but the logical flow of ideas that often determines its clarity.

So what is the problem? For some it is just laziness, because someone is not willing to put out the effort needed for clarity. But for others it is the inability to shift from one register of writing to another. In writing, what is the notion of register and why does it matter?

What Is a Register?

Register is a little discussed, but important, aspect of writing that pertains to our issue of why academics can’t write simply and plainly. For some, like author Ali Luke, in “Writing Tips: Understanding Register—And Why It Matters,” register pertains to the degree of formality of writing. Says Luke, “Register is the level of formality of a piece of writing: It’s something slightly separate from what we might call tone or style.” The formality of a piece of writing can either be formal or informal, business-like or conversational. Blog posts, emails, and formal notifications can be adjusted (in word choice and sentence length) to follow grammatical rules rigidly, or to take liberties with grammar. Such as a sentence fragment.

However, the notion of register can go beyond considerations of formality and informality. The term was first used in the 1950s by linguistics scholars to refer to the context within which language is used. The phrase that M.A.K. Halliday coined at the time was meant to refer to “a configuration of situational features,” which we might think of as the context of speech or text. Registers, then, can refer to any number of types of communication (blogs, emails, reports, statutes). Thus, speech might be considered less formal, and text more formal. What’s more, variations exist within these registers that replicate the formal-to-less-formal continuum. Some text forms, like a résumé or a court order, use more formal grammar and diction (for example, “place of work”), and some text, like a text message to a friend, uses less formal grammar and diction (for example, “my gig”).

Register can also refer to specific words that appear to have synonymous meanings, but actually have different meanings given their divergent registers. For example, the word “vulgar” can mean language spoken by normal people, or it can mean profanity. It depends on the user. Douglas Biber, from Northern Arizona University, conducted a study of texts from four registers:

  • Conversation
  • Fiction
  • Newspaper language
  • Academic prose

Biber found that grammatical characteristics (verbs and pronouns) were actually used to fit the typical communicative characteristics of the register. The suggestion here is that registers differ based on attention to the users of the information rather than specific grammatical features. Biber says that registers interact with a host of textual factors in complex ways.

What Is the Technical Communication Register?

We know that academics use language suitable in a formal register. But what is the typical register for technical communication? The respondent in the Academic SIG discussion cited plain English, people first, and active voice as characteristic grammatical features of the technical communication register. I agree that technical communication tends to be more conversational and thus aligned with the informality of the spoken word. Textbooks that we use for technical communication routinely cite a conversational style for technical communication. Work by some scholars has confirmed a conversational give and take in the interaction of the user and the technology. “I chose Open from the File menu, now what?”

Our analysis of the various meanings of the term register can show how important it is, and why it is difficult to adjust for it. Register can refer to the formality of writing, but also to what some call registers of representation. Looking to the theory of semiotics shows how words signal ideas as a way of producing meaning. Signs, in semiotics, communicate meaning, but do not make the meaning. The word is assigned to the meaning through inscriptions created by individuals, by academics, and by technical communicators. So it is just that: A “register” is an organized system of signs that collectively define people and their activities.

Why can’t people simply speak to those who understand their register (the given, accepted domain that gives meaning of words)? I would like to suggest that the fault lies not in the registers and language systems that support them, but in the human tendency to step out of confining work pathways and try something new. The discussion that I mentioned earlier—the one whose posts promoted this exploration of words and meanings—attracted some responses from other members. One response illustrates a continuing, frustrating problem of out-of-register language use.

An editor noted that she advised a student to rewrite a passage in a medical communication to remove the fluff, hookie, and piffle (although these words were not used). The “punch line” for the instructor, when the student complained that she just wanted to “sound like an academic,” was that non-English speaking readers might get confused by such complex diction and sentences. “You want them to understand too, right?” she said.

Register, it turns out, is a useful term (borrowed as it is from the linguistic register!) to sort out just why formal language leaves us frustrated. The problem is not just that the person wants to sound academic, but that they are on the boundary and trying to communicate between groups or registers of readers. As we have seen, one group’s fluff is another group’s knowledge. The problem might just be one of managing the two language registers, rather than adopting one or the other.

This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at ttbarker@ualberta.ca.

Resources

Academic Writing in English. “Register and Style” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Register_(sociolinguistics).

Luke, Ali, “Writing Tips: Understanding register– and why it matters https://thewritelife.com/understanding-register/.

Wikipedia, Register (sociolinguistics), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Register_(sociolinguistics).

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