We're a little crazy, about science!

The ambiguity of language

Well we made it, it’s Friday. I’ve finished my experiments, done most of the things that I needed to do and now I can focus on writing for once. No, not my blog. It’s finally time for some technical writing. I’m not thrilled about it, I mean I don’t mind technical writing as a general rule, but it does get tedious with all the edits. Maybe that’s why I like my blog so much, I can just write and be done with it.

Technical writing is more of a progression. The first draft is always going to be awful. While you shouldn’t slack on it by putting zero effort into doing it, even if you gave it your all, it’s not good. That’s okay though, words are hard. Think of it like this, if I said one word, boot. You may think a sturdy type of shoe, or depending on where you are, you may think trunk of a car.

That’s just a simple example, but words don’t always mean what you think they mean and that causes problems! There’s ambiguity in language and technical writing tries so hard to eliminate that ambiguity. While it cannot and will not succeed, it’s always amazing how we all still try to do it.

It’s not even regional differences like the example I just gave. Sometimes you end up using technical jargon that someone outside your field may not understand. The first rule of any technical writing class is always know your audience. Knowing who you’re speaking to, through written text or speech makes a world of difference as to the content you can create.

Sometimes you need to gloss over the difficult details to make a bigger point. I can’t for example give a whole background on neuroscience just to talk about the work I do. In fact, I wrote a whole 54 post series on the spinal cord and it was just the basics.

That’s a small book of information before I can start getting into the research I do for someone not in my field. Yet, I still routinely share my research with middle school and high school students. I even once explained it to kindergarteners, now THAT was a challenge! The point is simple, while they tell you in technical writing class to know your audience, the advice applies to life in general. It will shape what you talk about and how you talk about it.

Which brings me back to the last thing I need to work on this week, my grant proposal. I’m writing for an audience who is in my field, so this is very detailed technical writing, or at least it should be. I can gloss over the more known things in my field and mention central pattern generators without further definition. Unfortunately that means I need to be clear in the words I do (or do not) choose to use. Do I assume common knowledge, do I define something, it’s all a bit vague.

And frankly that’s the point of today’s post. Language isn’t perfect. I can say apple and you may picture a bright red apple, but I can define it further and say I’m talking about a green granny smith apple. Now I defined the apple and you know the color, maybe even the taste and smell, but what size is the apple I’m talking about? Is it fresh off the tree? Maybe it’s old and rotten. I didn’t say one way or the other.

When you visualized it, you assumed a particular version of the apple and that’s the crux of the issue. Without the details you have to make several assumptions to conclude we are talking about the same thing. Because I have a limited amount of space, I need to be careful about what I let you assume and what I clearly define (it was a fresh apple by the way, but I’ll let you guess on the size).

The takeaway for the day? Words are hard.


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