Precise Language in Technical Documents

Published: 28 August 2013

Last week, I listened to a radio program about distracted driving. One of the experts on the show said that in a recent poll, the majority of respondents said they no longer consider drunk driving “a serious threat.” Her point was that public awareness of the dangers of drunk driving seems to be waning, but I found myself thinking, “how did the respondents interpret the word ‘threat’ and how did that affect their answers?”

For example, did some people think of ‘threat’ as personal physical danger? Did other people think of a threat as a statistically relevant problem for society as a whole? Did the survey define “threat” so that all respondents had the same understanding?

Considering these questions got me thinking about how important it is to use precise language in technical writing. Technical documents communicate information that readers must understand exactly:

  • Workers rely on procedures to do their jobs properly and safely.
  • Businesses rely on standards and policies to meet regulatory requirements.
  • Customers rely on your website content and correspondence to understand your services.

Imprecise language confuses readers and weakens the message. For example, I recently edited a report that included this sentence: “Set the protective string straight after the liner.”

The phrase “straight after” is imprecise because it is has several common meanings. Readers could have any of the following interpretations:

  • Set the protective string immediately after setting the liner.
  • Set the protective string directly below the liner.
  • Set the protective string so that it is even and centered after setting the liner.

Revising the sentence to use the clearest language possible helps ensure that all readers understand your exact meaning. In this example, the intended meaning was “Set the protective string immediately after setting the liner.”

With documents, you don’t get a chance to clarify your meaning by answering questions. You have to communicate everything with the words you use. Writing what you mean, as precisely as possible, is vital to writing technical documents that people can actually use.

Learn More

Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). “Avoid legal, foreign, and technical jargon.” Accessed August 28, 2013.