Every word carries meaning

Some might argue that the heart of technical editing is grammar and syntax, but I believe the heart of technical editing is at the most minute level of terminology. Every word that we choose to write carries very specific meaning, and as arbiters of quality, technical editors must make every word count. Choosing to add or delete a word from a sentence is critical, but choosing the most accurate word is crucial.

Let’s look at the words “may” and “can,” and how crucial even just this simple word is to technical communication. The Copyediting tip of the week recently was about the grammatical and semantic nuances of these words. Most style guides include specific advice on when and how to use these words. Most fall in line with the advice that “may” is used to suggest “allowed to” and “can” is used to suggest “ability to.”

Seems simple enough, but consider this post from the Language Log about “may cause” versus “can cause” in scientific writing. It seems as though a trend is emerging that suggests “graded degrees of empirical support and epistemic strength,” with “can cause” suggesting stronger empirical support for a statement than “may cause.” Technical editors must follow these trends and apply these nuances to their work.

Consider another example that my husband and I heard on the news the other day: Flight crews reported that they found an “unidentifiable substance” in an airplane bathroom. What they should have said was “unidentified,” especially since the haz-mat team later identified the substance as talcum powder. By using the wrong form of the adjective, they made an inaccurate statement about the substance that they found. Perhaps you might argue that at that time, in their experience, it was unidentifiable. However, I’d argue that their statement was incorrect and caused even more of a news story than was really warranted.

I am sure that numerous other examples from our own work to the world around us where one word makes all the difference.

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