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Technical Writing: Ngram Search and Science Idioms

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Ngram Search and Science Idioms

Google has recently released a special search tool that shows
how often a specified string of characters (or "ngram") as occurred
each year since 1800 in Google's massive collection of scanned
scholarly books (ngrams.googlelabs.com). This lets you and your
students conduct your own experiments in historical linguistics.
Since careful attention to word choice is one important way that
technical writers help their readers USE their prose, this "ngram
frequency" search adds an empirical aspect to word selection.

Case 1: Scientist

For example, your science students may be surprised to learn
that the word 'scientist' as the name of a profession has a very
short history. It was coined by English philosopher William
Whewell around 1860 (Whewell died in 1866). Running 'scientist'
through the Google ngram search engine readily confirms this:
its usage is flat at 0 until 1860, rises gently through the start
of the twentieth century, accelerates after World War I, and clearly
peaks just before 1970 (after which more specific terms, such as
'physiologist' or 'physicist', became common as professional
identifiers).

Case 2: The Up Idioms

More useful for student technical writing, however, are
ngram-search results for common science idioms, those often-used
English strings that do not carry their literal meaning but rather
a different one that readers (especially nonnative English
speakers) cannot infer from the string itself.

In the file four.ups.pdf parked at
http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/HighSchoolScienceTeachers/files
are usage plots from 1800 to 2000 for four such common technical
idioms: blow up, break up, look up, and make up. The graph
clearly reveals that all four, unlike 'scientist', have a long
and fairly stable track record. 'Blow up' is consistently used
least often. 'Break up' and 'look up' are both more common (and
their usage plots cross twice). 'Make up' has the highest usage
rate of these four throughout the entire 200-year range, and also
its plot has the greatest variations, perhaps because this idiom
is ambiguous in at least five ways (another source of confusion
for nonnative English readers). 'Make up' can mean:
* construct or create (make up a prescription or a list),
* comprise (the make up of this alloy is complex),
* imagine (make up a new procedure or a story),
* compensate (make up for an earlier delay),
* apply cosmetics (originally a theater term referring to
preparing for a stage performance).

Such terms, despite their relatively long usage history, often
pose a challenge for ESL/ELL students to use effectively and for
international science readers to understand easily. Hence, good
techncial writers use idioms carefully, always keeping these dual
usability challenges in mind.

Student Activities

So how can your students hone their work (and especially
idiom) choices when they write about science and technology?

(1) Mark lurking idioms.
Asking students to underline every idiomatic phrase in their draft
abstract or project report alerts them to how often their text poses
unintended problems for ESL/ELL classmates and (later) international
colleagues. Such awareness is their first step toward providing
greater usability.

(2) Perform an ngram search.
Running each found idiom through Google's ngram search tool yields
a 200-year frequency report that reveals the string's longevity
and historical usage fluctuations (as in the examples above). Here
is free and easy empirical, retrospective insight into influential
phrases that most students take for granted.

(3) Try likely alternatives.
Because science idioms are so common, almost invisible to many
student writers, finding more literal replacements can be daunting.
Fortunately, "there is an app for that" too: the intermediate
dictionary. Designed for English learners and middle-school
students, the intermediate dictionary contains almost as many
words as a regular dictionary but defines all of them in basic
terms that require only an eighth-grade education to understand.
A suggested replacement here for 'blow up', to continue our earlier
example, is 'expand' or 'explode'--both simple and literal. The
suggested replacement for 'look up' is 'search' or 'seek for'.

Together, intermediate dictionaries and ngram search show
students that their word choices have consequences and that
thoughtful alternatives might often have better consequences.

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