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Technical English: Fewer is better!

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Technical English: Fewer is better!

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  1. Technical English:Fewer is better! John Morris Faculty of Engineering,Mahasarakham University Computer Science/Electrical and Computer Engineering, The University of Auckland Iolanthe II leaves the Hauraki Gulf under full sail – Auckland-Tauranga Race, 2007

  2. A Great Myth • You can’t use personal pronouns in technical writing! • In particular, you must avoid writing ‘I’at all costs!! • This is complete nonsense!! • Anybody advocating this idea is violating a much more important principle: • Write directly and simply!

  3. Background to the myth • Principle • It should not reflect personal views or prejudices of the author(s) • This is clearly a good principle • Your argument should be logical, balanced and precise • You should be able to defend it against any objections • … Scientific writing should be objective

  4. Implementation of a good principle • Convention • Avoid personal pronouns (and therefore ‘subjective’ writing) and use passive tense The resistance was measured every hour .. instead of We measured the resistance every hour or I measured the resistance every hour • Whilst ‘we measured …’ is usually accepted • ‘I measured …’ is completely rejected by some • Even if the paper has a single author and ‘we’ is grammatically wrong • Logic?

  5. Problem • Most of the time, passive forms are fine • All these alternatives are simple The resistance was measured every hour .. We measured the resistance every hour I measured the resistance every hour • However, sometimes passive becomes slightly clumsy and long-winded • So active sentences are shorter and more direct • Most papers have multiple authors, so We measured … • is technically and grammatically correct However .. • When there is a single author (eg your thesis!!)

  6. Problem However .. when there is a single author (eg your thesis!!) • Some writers write ‘we measured …’ • This is technically and grammatically wrong • Only one person measured x • So why use ‘we’ and imply that more than one was involved? • Remember that this is a technical paper:precision is more important than style! • It is simply wrong to write ‘we’ (meaning at least 2 people!) • Accepting this argument, some authors will write things like .. • The present author measured .. • Pompous, long-winded and just unnecessary!! • Just to avoid writing ‘I’

  7. Strange logic There is a some very strange and flawed logic here .. • Fallacy • Writing ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ somehow makes it less personal • Reality • Both are personal pronouns! • Fallacy • You must not use ‘I’ .. It is too personal ?? • Reality • Simplicity and directness are more important • You can’t get much simpler than ‘I’ in English • Many well-known and respected scientists have used ‘I’ in their papers!

  8. Strange logic There is a some very strange and flawed logic here .. • Fallacy • Expressions like ‘the present author’ get around the problem • Reality • There wasn’t a problem in the first place • So don’t use pompous and long-winded phrases to solve it!! • Follow the example of many great scientists before you .. • Just write ‘I’ ! • Simpler, shorter, more direct • Clearly better

  9. Your thesis Every university includes in its regulations a clear requirement that the work in a thesis • must be your own and • all other contributions are explicitly acknowledged • If you follow the fallacy • Write ‘we’ not ‘I’ • then • In principle, an examiner can fail you immediately! • You have not done any work by yourself! • Don’t risk this .. ever .. Rules • Mostly: Use passive • Except when it’s too clumsy: then write actively - ‘I …’

  10. Your thesis Rules • Mostly: Use passive • Except when it’s too clumsy: then write actively - ‘I …’ • Never use ‘we’ Exceptions (there are always some ) • Explicitly acknowledged joint work – you worked as part of a team on a large project:use ‘we’ for the team work, ‘I’ for your own contributions • Mathematical derivations  …

  11. Mathematical derivations • Here it is common to use ‘we’ even for single authors • It is assumed that you are including your readers in your exposition .. Now, if we substitute equation (6) into equation (4), we obtain .. or Using the separability property, we can write … or Applying conditions (1) and (2), we see that … must be true. • Here ‘we’ means ‘you and I’ .. ie I’m expecting you to follow my argument as I develop it • This is the only place where ‘we’ should appear in most theses (except those written by members of large research teams)

  12. Avoiding personal pronouns .. • Another myth • You should use expressions like ‘the author(s)’ • to avoid ‘we’ or ‘I’ • A total myth!! • It sounds pompous and • ‘We’ or ‘I’ is so much simpler!

  13. Summary • Simple, clear, direct expression is more important than mis-guided and just silly ideas about objectivity! • Use passive voice most of the time • Don’t be afraid to use ‘we’ or ‘I’ when it makes your expression • Shorter • Simpler • More direct • Easier for you to get the grammar right • Especially use ‘I’ in your thesis and all single author papers • ‘we’ is technically wrong • Rationale for using it is flawed

  14. Single author papers (or your thesis ) • Convention: Avoid personal pronouns by using passive tense The velocity was measured … • Rather than We measured the velocity .. • However, sometimes the passive form is more complex and clumsy • So Write ‘we’ or ‘I’ • It’s your analysis that makes your work unbiased, not the words you use to talk about it!! • Overriding principle: Simplicity and clarity is more important