Feb 132010

The hard dish installs the manual by alistairmcmillan.

Technical manuals are clear, direct and precise, right? The content is factual. There’s going to be none of the pussy footing around and ambiguity that we’d associate with the ‘polite’ stuff that folks (like me)  usually write about, right?

There’s a great research paper here on ‘simple English’ that illustrates just how wrong these assumptions are.

Operating manuals contain a large number modals verbs

You must do an inspection of all the tubes

The handle should be folded inside the stabilizer trim

‘Should’ differs from ‘must’ in terms of the expectation of compliance – how confident we feel that it’s going to happen.

You must inspect it (and I think you will because I have told you to)

You should inspect it (It’s the right thing to do but perhaps you won’t)

And then there are some more ‘fuzzy’ modals like ‘may’ and ‘can’.

Use of long range cruise may be appropriate

Mercury vapors can be toxic

Something interesting about ‘may’: if I say you may do something, it also implies you may not. It suggests that I am not fully committed to the instruction, so if it turns out that it wasn’t appropriate to use long range cruise, I can’t be held responsible. And there’s a similar lack of commitment if I say ‘can’. In some way, I’m less responsible for the outcome.

Macintosh User Manual - Chapter 1 by peterme.

The language of technical manuals aspires to be plain, straightforward English, so we might expect that all manuals would be similar in their use of these modals – irrespective of their audience.

They’re not. The study shows that operations manuals written for high status pilots, have fewer uses of ‘must’ and many more uses of ‘should’, ‘may’ and ‘can’. In repair manuals written for lower status technicians, there are more uses of ‘must’.


Like the authors of this study, I reckon that it’s about status. I can’t see another sensible explanation for the disparity. We might like to imagine that technical language is socially neutral and free of fuzziness, but in practice, that’s not the case. Writers of manuals attend to politeness issues – like the rest of the human race – and if they are writing in Anglo-English, they will attend to a social requirement to pretend like the other person has a choice.

And I’m not suggesting that this is good practice or bad practice. I’m just saying it exists. And I think that if these politeness issues are there, we need to address them and teach them – to everyone, including (and maybe especially) our techie students. All thoughts welcome, so please chip in if you have ideas on this.

Other postings related to this that you might be interested in:

 Posted by at 8:21 am

  10 Responses to “Technically speaking”

  1. Excellent point that about choice, giving your receiver options.

    Ahh ! I love a blogger who knows her discourse analysis inside out!

  2. Oh, thank you so much Marisa, but you’re way too kind. It was the author of that study who really did the work there.
    Her name is Simone Sarmento and she seems to be based in Brazil. I’ve since found another paper she wrote with Costas Gabrielatos, but it’s more about modal distribution than politeness and I didn’t find it so interesting. http://revistaseletronicas.pucrs.br/fo/ojs/index.php/fale/article/viewFile/600/431
    Hope she writes some more.

  3. Is it about status per se, or expectations of knowledge? When I first read the para about manuals for pilots having less ‘must’ and more ‘should’, my immediate thought was that the authors of the manuals could assume their users had a level of knowledge about the system that ‘lower level technicians’ might not have (different system, obviously). The pilot ‘chooses’ to follow the instructions because s/he knows they make sense. With the technician (and, indeed, the rest of us!), the authors can’t really make that assumption, so go for the ‘must’ approach, in the hope that it will convince us that they know what they’re talking about…

  4. Thank you so much for stopping by and chipping in Sharon.
    I’m sure you’re right that the pilots can be assumed to have a good level of knowledge of the systems. It will have been part of their training. And maybe the technicians were low level and knew less, but I don’t know if we can make that assumption. It seems plausible to me that they might actually know more about some system parts than the pilots, but I really don’t know.
    As the author of the study put it “It may be a coincidence, but our findings seem to suggest that the different strategies used in the two manuals match the different social status of the two DCs at stake: pilots and mechanics. Thus, technical languages may not be so socially neutral, after all.”

  5. I just want to add that that stuff Marisa honed in on about giving your receiver options is cutting to the chase in my view. It seems to be a peculiarity of Anglo English that needs pointing out again and again to me.

  6. i love your work in TECH TALK elementary book
    im doing a research now about technical english i dont know if you could help me in my research for example what books to read im an 18 year-old teacher from peru and i would be nice if you could help me


  7. Welcome Alejandro and thank you very much for your kind words.

    Are there any particular aspects of technical English that you’re particularly interested in and what kind of research are you doing?

    I’d like to throw this question open because when they know a little more about what you’re looking for, other visitors to this blog may have some good reading recommendations as well.

    To get the ball rolling, a very old classic methodology book is:
    English for Specific Purposes, a learning-centred approach – Tom Hutchinson and Alan Walters, CUP
    There’s also English for Specific Purposes – Keith Harding, OUP, which has quite a few technical English activities.
    Technical English is hugely diverse, of course , so a genre based approach is often very applicable. If so, another classic would be Genre Analysis by John Swales, CUP.

    And don’t forget there’s some free reading around e.g. http://www.esp-world.info/contents.htm

    So let us know what you’re looking for and let’s see what we can come up with.

  8. hello mrs hollet:

    sorry for the late reply . its just that ive been working hard . well im doing this research about english for technicians . electricians , mechanics , factory workers etc .. i really need to read more books about ESP thanks for the recommendations they were really helpfull

    i have some questions :

    -does it exist esp for technicians . electricians , mechanics , factory workers?

    – who did you make tech talk for ?¿
    – what branches does esp englosbes ?¿

    thanks for your help i really appreciate it
    you dont mind if i ask as many questions i can ,right ?¿ jaja

  9. hello mrs hollet :

    sorry for the late reply its just ive been busy all these days .

    well kind of english im looking for is english for technicians what do i mean by technicians ?
    electricians , factory workers , mechanics ..etc

    i have some questions i hope you dont mind if i ask as many questions i can hahah:

    -does it exist an english for technicians what do i mean by technicians ?
    electricians , factory workers , mechanics ..etc ?

    -what branches does ESP englobes ?
    -who did you do tech talk for ?
    directed to who ?¿

    i really appreciate your help and dont worry i will come up with more questions . haha

  10. Alejandro,
    Many apoplogies for my late reply. I’m not sure how I managed to miss this one. ‘What is technical English?’ is a very good question.
    I think you might need to head along to IATET http://www.iatet.com/ where the issue is being discussed amongst members of the International Association of Technical English Trainers. Your contributions will be welcomed.

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