Understanding and Producing
Scientific and Technical
Articles, Proposals, and Reports

L. B. Cebik, W4RNL

As I retired and cleaned out an office of some 26 years' use, I uncovered a number of antique nuggets. I wished they had been gold and convertible into cash, but alas, they were only wisdom encapsulated. Some are more than 25 years in my possession--and may have been old when I received them. Their ultimate origins are wholly unknown, since my sources are burred photocopies of nearly as blurry photocopies. While my sight remains good enough to decipher them, I shall place them here. Read at your own peril.

Understanding Scientific and Technical Discussion and Literature

The following list speaks for itself--and, unfortunately, for all too many of us upon occasion. Let he or she who has never used any of these expressions (or their first cousins) cast the first aspersion.

A Key to Understanding Scientific Literature
     What he/she said                        What he/she meant

1.  It has long been known that. . .    I haven't bothered to look up the
                                        original reference but. . .

2.  Of great theoretical and            Interesting to me
     practical importance. . .

3.  While it has not been possible      The experiment did not work out,
     to provide definite answers to     but I figure I could at least get
     these questions. . .               a publication out of it. . .

4.  The W-PO system was chosen as       The fellow in the next lab had some
     especially suitable to show        already made up. . .
     the predicted behavior. . .

5.  Three of the samples were chosen    The results on the others didn't
     for detailed study. . .            make sense. . .

6.  Accidentally strained during        Dropped on the floor. . .
     mounting. . .

7.  Handled with extreme care           Not dropped on the floor. . .
     throughout the experiment. . .

8.  Typical results are shown. . .      The best results are shown. . .

9.  Agreement with the predicted
     curve is. . .
          excellent                          fair
          good                               poor
          satisfactory                       doubtful
          fair                               imaginary

10.  It is suggested that. . .
     It is believed that. . .
     It may be that. . .                I think. . .

11.  It is generally believed           A couple of other guys think so
      that. . .                         too. . .

12.  It is clear that much additional   a.  I don't understand it. . .
     work will be required before a     b.  My grant is up for renewal. . .
     complete understanding. . .

13.  Unfortunately, a quantitative      a.  Nobody else understands it either.
     theory to account for these        b.  Guess the subject of my grant 
     results has not been formulated.       proposal.

14.  Correct within an order of         Wrong. . .
     magnitude. . .

15.  Thanks are due to Joe Glotz for    Glotz did the work, and Doe
     assistance with the experiments    explained what it meant.
     and to John Doe for valuable


After recently distributing the "Keys to Understanding Scientific Discussion and Literature," I received a wonderful array of appreciative notes, equally divided between those who vaguely remembered the list and welcomed an old friend and those who had never before seen it and felt guilty for having used a column-1 expression on at least one occasion. Two separate sources sent me copies of another item originating at the same time (about a quarter century ago, I think, and likely even older--I cannot be sure because I wore out my copy using it). While equally fascinating, it had more to do with administration and management than it did with electronics of the sort that interests us.

However, if necessity is the mother of invention, then play is surely the father. So let's review the original item and then see what electronic damage we may do to it.

How To Win At Wordsmanship

After years of hacking through etymological thickets at the U.S. Public Health Service, a 63-year-old official named Philip Broughton hit upon a sure-fire method for converting frustration into fulfillment (jargonwise). Euphemistically called the Systematic Buzz Phrase Projector, Broughton's system employs a lexicon of 30 carefully chosen "buzzwords":

Column 1                 Column 2                 Column 3

0.  integrated           0.  management           0.  options
1.  total                1.  organizational       1.  flexibility
2.  systematized         2.  monitored            2.  capability
3.  parallel             3.  reciprocal           3.  mobility
4.  functional           4.  digital              4.  programming
5.  responsive           5.  logistical           5.  concept
6.  optional             6.  transitional         6.  time-phase
7.  synchronized         7.  incremental          7.  projection
8.  compatible           8.  third-generation     8.  hardware
9.  balanced             9.  policy               9.  contingency

The procedure is simple. Think of any three digit number, then select the corresponding buzzword from each column. For instance, number 257 produces "systematized logistical projection," a phrase that can be dropped into virtually any report with that ring of decisive, knowledgeable authority. "No one will have the remotest idea of what you are talking about," says Broughton, "but the important thing is that they're not about to admit it."

Two facts struck me. First, every ham wishes he or she could come up with the key electronic invention that would solve the world's problems, make one rich beyond belief, and write one's name large in all future history books. Second, all that is needed is inspiration.

Since the first premise is set, all we need is a source of inspiration. That's where Broughton's word-play device comes into play. By judiciously selecting words for 3 columns, we can inspire ourselves to create the electronics of tomorrow. So I made up my list of inspirational concepts.

Column 1                 Column 2                 Column 3

0.  integrated           0.  encoded              0.  optimizer
1.  asynchonous          1.  programmable         1.  converter
2.  analog               2.  monitored            2.  reactor
3.  parallel             3.  reciprocal           3.  transducer
4.  functional           4.  demodulated          4.  interface
5.  transferrable        5.  logic-based          5.  buffer
6.  digital              6.  transformational     6.  filter
7.  synchronized         7.  incremental          7.  instrument
8.  compatible           8.  fifth-generation     8.  regenerator
9.  balanced             9.  time-phase           9.  generator

Be careful: some 3-digit inventions may already exist, such as 654. However, I have never seen a 770 or a 334. You may revise the list to suit your special interests. But there is fertile inventive ground, even in this preliminary cut. So while you rewrite the list, I am off to the shop. I do not know today if I shall try to make an 898 or a 542.

Mastering the Grammar of Technical and Scientific Literature

The third (and final?) entry is a set of general guidelines sufficient to lead anyone through the grammatical morass of technical writing. Specialists try to make the task seem more difficult than it is, but the following rules cover almost all of the cases you will encounter in a lifetime of writing and editing. Again, the exact origin is unknown, although the list has been plaguarized many times. One more time will likely not hurt.

Rules of English for Technical Article, Proposal, and Report Writers

Enough is enough. Or is it. . .?

Updated 7-28-99. L. B. Cebik, W4RNL. Data may be used for personal purposes, but may not be reproduced for publication in print or any other medium without permission of the author.

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