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Technical Writing: Ngram Search and Science Idioms

Technical Writing: Ngram Search and Science Idioms

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. 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 ( 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 parked at 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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