Tasked with Utilizing a Multitude of Annoying Words

Okay, here’s the thing – I can’t stand how some students write engineering reports and give engineering presentations. I’m just going to go ahead and say it. And it’s probably going to make me sound like a Snooty-McSnootypants, but I guess I can live with that.

Something comes over students when they have to write a report or give a presentation about a technical topic that makes them forget how to speak in regular, clear English. They decide that in order to sound smart and technically competent that they need to use a different version of English with lots of extra words and fussy synonyms.

“A wind tunnel was utilized to simulate the air stream acting upon the wing.”

This may seem fine at first glance, and there’s nothing fatally wrong with it, but after you’ve read and listened to enough sentences like this they make you want to stab yourself in the eye with a fork. Where to begin? I hate the word “utilize.” You’re taking a perfectly acceptable 3-letter word and expanding it to seven letters while at the same time making people want to punch you in the face. The word you want is “use.” Just because you did an experiment doesn’t mean you utilized things. You still just used them.

UtilizeAnother word that should go away? “Upon.” Again, taking a 2-letter word and doubling its size while also sounding like an arrogant doofus. Why does “upon” even exist? Another frustrating thing about this sentence – passive voice. Now I am not going to harp on this one as much because it can be really difficult to avoid the passive voice in scientific writing since you’re not able to use words like “we” and “I” and “our.” But try…please try.

Upon

Consider any of these less annoying options:

“The wing was placed in a wind tunnel, which generated air flow.”

“A wind tunnel was used to create air flow over the wing.”

“A wind tunnel created air flow over the wing.”

It’s not an action-suspense-thriller, but you could imagine a person actually saying these sentences in real life with a straight face. If you were telling a friend how you did this experiment and what happened, how would you say it? Write your paper as close to that as you possibly can while avoiding the first person. It will be so much less painful to read.

“The team was tasked with determining the temperature distribution in fins while varying a multitude of parameters such as shape, length and material.”

Another word I hate? “Tasked.” First of all, no one cares what you were “tasked” with; all they care about is what you did and your results. They also don’t care how well the team got along, what a great brainstorming session you had, or how challenging the work was…but that’s another topic. “Tasked” can be completely avoided if you avoid talking about yourself or your team, which you are supposed to avoid anyway. If you aren’t avoiding that for whatever reason, or it is somehow necessary to describe the assignment you were given, use “asked.” “We were asked to…[whatever you were asked to do].”

Tasked

Ok, then there’s the “while varying a multitude of parameters such as…” This is fluff. This is just spewing words with abandon. Words are precious. Give them maximum impact. Tell the reader what parameters you varied. Then you don’t have to tell them you varied a multitude of them. They’ll just know.

“Temperature distribution in fins was studied based on fin geometry, material and length.”

“Differences in fin temperature distribution were compared based on variations in fin geometry, length and material.”

And if describing the assignment is necessary (and make sure it really is):

“The team was asked to compare temperature distribution in three fin geometries based on fin material and length.”

I think as undergraduates we spend so much time having to churn out reports that we don’t spend very much time thinking about what it’s like to actually read them. We assume our professors aren’t really reading them anyway, and in some cases that’s probably true. We think it’s just busy work, and in most cases, it is. It’s going through the motions. It’s learning how to write an engineering report, so that when we have to actually write one that matters, we can. But when we have to actually write one that matters, someone will actually be reading it. It needs to be concise; it needs to make sense; it needs to be readable.

Write fewer words; write carefully chosen words. Say what you did and what you found. Say it as simply as you possibly can. What you did should be what makes you sound smart, not how you say it. If there’s a length requirement, do your best to meet it, but if you’ve said everything that needs to be said, and you’ve said it clearly and concisely and you’re still a page short, well, then be a page short.

*stepping down off soapbox*

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