Translating Technical Terms

In writing technical information for the non-screwdriver200technical reader, the traditional wisdom goes that you are, or should be, “writing to express rather than to impress.”

So let’s take a look at translating some of those technical terms to help our non-technical readers understand just what we are talking about. And let’s also expand our definition of technical writing to include not only material that is technical in nature, but also information that is new to our readers, or new in a specific discipline or field. And thusly, will also need “translation.”

Just who are these readers? They are managerial – very often the decision-makers. They are your co-workers; government agencies; advisory committees; “The Public”; and…. Here’s where you consider your various specialized audiences.

Three ways to translate the technical terms you use:

The first step is to identify the terms that need to be translated for your audience. You will most likely recognize them as you are writing, but for practice, jot down five words or phrases that may need to be translated for your audience.

1. Informal. This is the way many of us were taught to translate unfamiliar terms, and while it may not be appropriate for strictly technical writing, it can be useful in business writing. To use this familiar method, you will set your definition off with a parentheses (  ), or with commas ,   ,. If you are defining an acronym, the most common use of this method, you will spell out the term in full, followed by the acronym. After this definition, you may use the acronym in the balance of your piece without further definition.

2. Formal. The formal definition includes three elements: (1) the term itself; (2) the category; and (3) its uniqueness – what it is that makes this term different from others in its category, e.g.,

A Phillips Screw Driver is a hand tool with a “+” shape at the tip, and is specially designed to be used with a Phillips screw.

3. Extended. A sentence, or as much as several paragraphs or even pages, usually combining the above translation methods, and often including visual elements –  diagrams, charts, graphs, and so on.

Using your list, translate each of your five terms using one of these three translation techniques. For this practice, try to use each of the techniques at least once.

Then, remember what Peter Drucker said:

“As soon as you move one step up from the bottom, your effectiveness depends on your ability to reach others through the spoken or written word.”

Come back next week. We’ll see you then.

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Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentationsexecutive coaching,consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email


Using Numbers for Technical Writing


While some organizations may have their own style guides outlining their unique preferences, the following 14 guidelines are how numbers should be used, absent a formal style guide in your organization.

1.  Use Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3,) for:

•  All numbers over nine in the text

There were 98,526 wafers in that batch.  There were 10 operators involved.  (ButTen operators were involved.)

Note that when the first word of a sentence is a number greater than nine, you have two options: (a) spell it out, or (b) re-write the sentence so it does not start with the number. The exception is a numeral that identifies a calendar year.

•  The day and year of the date:

April 10, 2014

•  Time:

5:25 A.M.;  4 P.M.

•  Address:

13535 N.W. Science Park Drive

8600 S.W. 10th Avenue

2700 N.E. Third Avenue

•  Measurements, decimals, money, percentages:

5 in.  (or 5 inches)

5.0       0.67834



• In a series. Combine as appropriate (AP Style)

15 cashews, three walnuts, 52 peanuts,…

•  When modifying a noun

1/8-ft. lengths,   3-1/4-in. pipe

2.  Spell out when:

•  The number is the first word in a sentence

Ten operators were involved.

•  The number is less than 10

three containers of filters

3.  Other things to remember:

•  Put a zero before the decimal point for a number less than one (0.543).

•  Line up on the decimal point for lists of numbers (e.g., in a table).

•  Combine Arabic numbers with words for large numbers (i.e., 200 million, $345 billion).

•  For contracts, checks, and other documents where a typographical error could be really serious, spell out and use Arabic numbers [nine thousand twenty four dollars and twenty cents ($9,024.20)].

Hope these number guidelines will be helpful. They will also work for general business writing. Next week: Three easy ways to “translate” your words and terms to improve non-technical reader comprehension.

If you like what you’re reading, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email