Sunday, December 21, 2014

When I Edited Engineers - 1

I used to work in aerospace, editing proposals to the government. Because the proposals had technical content, it seemed logical to management to have engineers write them. The result often was that the quality of the technical stuff was excellent, but the non-technical stuff surrounding it, of which there’s quite a bit, didn’t work as well. 

Language would be stilted, and there would usually be too much of it. “Summaries” and “overviews” would choke with detail; and while, thankfully, graphics weren’t my responsibility, I did have to wrestle with paragraph-length figure captions. I also suspected there were office pools for Most Acronyms In A Single Sentence.

Time and temperament permitting, I would collaborate with the subject matter experts to rewrite or sometimes write the material. Other times, left to their own devices, the SMEs would fall into certain patterns in their writing; certain words would be used, or misused, in the same way. It was my responsibility to correct this, but since prevention is preferable to cure, I wrote up generic corrections to some of the more common problems and made them available to each new proposal team. It had no visible effect, but I present them in an occasional series here pro bono for any engineers who may happen by.

When I Edited Engineers  - 1
On “Over” Use
Many people have developed the habit of prefacing numbers with the word “over.” It seems to have become almost an involuntary thing. Even engineers who may deal in precision out to four decimal places in their everyday work become susceptible to it when working a proposal.

Aside from the fact that it would make more sense to say “more than,” it’s a tricky thing, and you don’t want to use it indiscriminately.  It’s one thing to say “over a million,” but something else to say “over 27.” You won’t be asked for more precision if you’re a journal claiming your million-plus readership, but if you’re talking about testing an airplane, you want to avoid saying “over 27 successful flights.” If you didn’t make it all the way to 28 -- 271/2  is bad news. 

I think there’s a reason why people use “over” more than “more than.” “More than” makes you conscious of the question “How many more?” and that might require some effort or research to get the answer (plus which you might find that “more than” was just an expression and there were only 27 after all).