Technical Communication

Normally, texts which contain technical terminology will incorporate definitions and explanations. This is particularly the case if the text is aimed at non-experts or students of technical subjects. A term should be defined if the word or phrase used

1: is unfamiliar to the reader
2: has multiple meanings
3: has a specific meaning in that discipline. The same word in one discipline can mean a different thing altogether in another discipline

A definition is:

‘a statement which gives clear, exact, concise description or explanation of a statement of the meaning of a word or phrase or the nature of an object’

When writing definition, some common words and expressions could be used, such as:

1. A computer is an electronic device.
2. Exercises are physical and mental activities.
3. The term laboratory refers to a room or building used for scientific
research. 4. Arachnophobia means that a very strong fear or hatred of spiders.

Elements of Definitions

← Plain English – the purpose of definition is to clarify meaning, so use language readers could understand


i) A tumor is a neoplasm

ii) A tumor is a growth of cells that occurs independently of surrounding tissue, and serves no useful function.

← Basic properties – definition should convey the properties that differentiate it from all others.


i) A thermometer measures temperature

ii) A book can be used to write in, to display pictures, and to record financial transactions.

iii) A book is a bound volume of pages.

← Objectivity – we need to omit our opinions from a definition, unless readers ask for them.


i) Bomb is defined as an explosive weapon detonated by impact and a timing mechanism.

ii) Bomb is an explosive weapon devised by some idiots to blow up the world.

2 types of definitions

1: the short formal definition of one sentence

2: the extended definition of several paragraphs or of the whole process

The short formal definition

▪ Usually of one sentence that contains 3 parts
1. the term or word or phrase to be defined
2. the class of object or concept to which the term belongs 3. the different characteristics which distinguish this term from all others of that class

|1 | |2 |3 | |WORD/TERM |V |CLASS |DIFFERENTIATING CHARACTERISTICS | |Water |is |a liquid |made up of molecules of 2 parts of hydrogen to 1 part of | | | | |oxygen. | |Topaz |is |a mineral |which is transparent or translucent aluminium silicate, | | | | |usually yellow in colour and used as a gem. | | | | | | |A pencil |is |an instrument |for writing or drawing, made of thin rod of graphite, | | | | |enclosed in a wooden cylinder. |

In writing short formal definition, there are 2 rules:

▪ 1. Specific class differentiation
▪ Assign the term to a class and then detail precisely how this term differs from other term within that class


An elephant is a huge mammal order of Proboscides, of the suborder Elepantoidea.

Rule 2:

▪ No repetition of word.
▪ Never repeat same word used in definition as it is a weak definition. It does not tell the reader any new information. ▪ Use another word to give more information.


A postman is a man who carries and delivers letters.

A postman is a mail carrier who delivers letters.

Now, let’s try giving a short, formal definition to the following terms:

|Word / term |Verb |Class |Differentiating characteristics | |Hay |is |grass |mown and dried for cattle food. | |A headache |is |a continuous pain |in the head. | |1. A heart | | | | |2. A supermarket | | | | |3. A clock
| | | | |4. A volcano | | | | |5. An engineer | | | | |6. An orchid | | | | |7. A dolphin | | | | |8. A computer | | | | |9. A mobile phone | | | | |10. A bicycle | | | |

Table 1: Short formal definition
The Extended Definition

What is Extended Definition?

❑ Some definitions and explanations give further distinguishing characteristics by means of a defining relative clause. ❑ Expanded definition that involves more than one sentence. ❑ It could be written in a paragraph or more, or even a whole essay to clarify the definition. ❑ This depends on the topic for each discipline and the need for details to achieve the purpose of writing it.

Relative clause includes relative pronouns which are:

Ways to extend a definition:

1.Etymology or Derivation
■ Refers to the origin of the word, its multiple meanings, and the way the word is used up to the present time.


i. Alcohol has its original roots from the Arabic word al-kuhul, which meant a colourless, inflammable, and pungent liquid with the chemical properties of C2H6O. Alcohol today can be burned as fuel, used in industry and medicine, and can be intoxicating element found in whiskey, wine, beer or in fermented and distilled liquors known as ethyl alcohol.

ii. Nicotine has its roots in the French word nicotiane, which means the tobacco plant. This Nicot’s plant was named after Jean Nicot, French ambassador at Lisbon. He introduced the tobacco seeds to France in 1560. This tobacco plant is poisonous water-soluble alkaloid, C10H14N2, found in the tobacco leaves which are used ordinarily in an aqueous solution of its sulphate as an insecticide. When the smokers of tobacco leaves became addicted to smoking, the scientists had to coin new word nicotine for the addictive ingredient in tobacco.

iii. Laser is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. The idea of lasers dates back as far as 212 B.C. when Archimedes used a magnifying glass to set fire to Roman ships during the siege of Syracuse.

■ Explains and clarifies any word in the definition that may confuse the readers

i. The word autobiography is made up of two words: auto, which means self or by oneself/itself, and biography, which means an account of a person’s life. Therefore, autobiography means the story of one’s own life written or dictated by oneself.

3.Negative comparisons or Negation
■ Readers can grasp some meanings by understanding clearly what the term does not mean.


i. A cucumber is not a vegetable but a long fruit.
ii. Love is not hate although there is a love-hate relationship. iii. Lasers are not merely weapons from science fiction.

■ Defines a word into different categories and explains each categories in detail.


A. Term – Elephant
B. Classification – Mammal
C. Basis for Division – i) Asiatic(ii) African
D. Detailed characteristics of each division – i) physical characteristics, (ii) location (iii) uses

5.Compare and Contrast

■ Use of analogies can compare the unfamiliar with the familiar based on a pattern of similarities. In doing this, we need to ask the following questions when giving definition: □ Does it resemble anything familiar?

□ How does it differ from comparable things? □ How is it both similar and different?


i. The way the animal heart pumps blood throughout the body is like the way water pump works to pump water into the water pipes.

ii. A seam gauge resembles a short ruler, except it has a length wise
slot in the middle of its entire length.

iii. Fiber optics technology results from the superior capacity of light waves to carry a communications signal. Sound waves, radio waves, and light waves can all carry signals; their capacity increases with their frequency. Voice frequencies carried by telephone operate at 1000 cycles per second, or hertz. Television signals transmit at about 50 million hertz. Light waves, however, operate at frequencies in the hundreds of trillion of hertz.

In addition to the 5 ways of expanding a definition above, we can also use descriptive details where we elaborate details like class, size, shape, colour, properties, uses and other information which we think are helpful in clarifying the term. Other than that, we can use examples and incidents, and we can also combine several ways in order to help with the understanding of the term.


1.The following are 2 samples of extended definitions written by a group of students. Read the samples and identify:

a) the term, the class, and the differentiating characteristics b) which way they used to define the term
c) whether the definition is successful in explaining to readers what the term means

2.The technical words in column A are similar in meaning to the more general English in column B. Match them.

|A |B | | | | | | |1 |Sheets |A |Goes up and down | |2 |Escalator
|B |Swings backwards and forwards | |3 |Motion |C |Goes in a line | |4 |Converts |D |Movement | |5 |Has a linear motion |E |Goes round and round | |6 |Reciprocates |F |Moving stairs | |7 |Rotates |G |Large, thin, flat pieces | |8 |Oscillates |H |Changes | | | | | |

3.Choose 1 term from Table 1: Short formal definition that you have done earlier. From the short formal definition, expand the description of the term using ways that you have learned in this unit. Write it in the following space.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Read the following paragraphs:




Sources: ,

1.From the paragraphs in the previous pages, find:
a) words that you think are factual
b) words that represent the writers’ opinion
Fill in the table below with your answers.
|Paragraph 1 |Facts |Opinion | | | |gorgeous | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |

|Paragraph 2 |Facts |Opinion | | |metal stampings | | | | |
| | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |

When you are done, compare your answers with a friend. Be prepared to rationalize your answers.

2.In this part, you need to choose 1 card. Each card contains questions regarding ‘Technical Description’. Prepare the answers to the questions, and present it to the whole class. You may do it using power point slide presentation. You are given about 5 minutes to talk about what you have discovered. While your friends are presenting, you may take notes for the rest of the question cards.

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________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________


3.In the following box are verb participles that can be used when writing a description of a functional, physical, or manufacturing process. Choose an object and write the description using the passive voice in present tense. You can use the verbs given or other verbs that you know. When you are done, read aloud the descriptions without saying the name of the final product. Your classmates have to guess what is being described.




For this assignment, you are going to write a technical description of an object of your choice. The following is how you are going about the assignment:

1. Choose an object. You must get the approval from your lecturer about
your choice. 2. Take not more than 5 pictures of the object from different views and print them. You are not allowed to lift images from other sources such as the Internet or books. 3. Label the parts of the object.

4. Write a description of the object which should include the following items: a. The extended definition of the object
b. The physical aspects of the object
c. The functional aspects of the object
5. Organise your description into Introduction, Content, and Conclusion. You must include the pictures that you have taken in the description. 6. You should write about 1000 words. Indicate the word count on the assignment cover page.


Your assignment will be evaluated by the following criteria:

Content – the answer is relevant and adequate to the assigned situation, shows knowledge to the subject, and well-developed thesis/topic.

Language use – effective simple and complex constructions, few errors of agreement, tense, number, word order/function, articles, pronouns, prepositions

Organisation – fluent expression, overall pattern is clear, well-organised, logical sequencing, cohesive.

Mechanics – mastery of conventions – few errors of spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, paragraphing.


Boeckner, K. and Brown, P.C. (1993). Oxford English for Computing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glendinning, E.H. and Glendinning, N. (1995). Oxford English for Electrical and Mechanical Engineering. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lannon, J.M. (1994). Technical Writing. 6th ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers. Rose Tunku Ismail. (2001). A Student’s Guide to Writing. Kuala Lumpur: DBP.

Neoplasm – this word is still unclear and needs more explanation

This is better because it gives accurate description of the term

This is essential information and gives real meaning of the term.

For this term, it cannot be defined according to functional properties because books have multiple functions.

Therefore, the basic property of the word that we could use is ‘physical’.

This definition gives fact.

‘some idiots to blow up the world’ is opinion and the definition ignores a bomb’s basic property.

Specific class differentiation to define item



Gives new information to the work of a postman

Scientific calculator is an electronic device that people use to calculate mathematics equation. This device is made up from electronic components. The case is made up from hard plastic. The structure consists of buttons and screen. The buttons are used to type in numbers and mathematics symbols. The function of the screen is to display what is being punched from the buttons.

Student A

Mechanical pencil consists of two terms that are ‘mechanical’ and ‘pencil’. It is called mechanical because the pencil is produced by machines and it consists of a set of moving parts that does a certain task. While pencil is a type of stationery used to write. So mechanical pencil is not like conventional pencil because mechanical pencil uses spring to eject the thin carbon lead from the body in order to write. Whereas, the normal pencil needs to be sharpened in order to write. Student B

Card A
1. What is the definition of “Technical Description”? 2. List 3 important features in a technical description.
3. How do you describe an object?

Card B
1. Give examples of words/terms that you use to describe an object. 2. Do you need to include visuals in technical description? Why/Why not? Give examples. 3. What is physical description?

Card C
1. What is the purpose of writing technical description?
2. What is functional description?
3. What should a technical description contain?

Card D
1. What is a process description?
2. How do you organize the descriptive sequence of an object? 3. What style/tone/ of language that you should use in a technical description? Give

What do you think?

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