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Sentence Structure/Style Question

  1. Mar 13, 2013 #1

    russ_watters

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    Consider the following two wordings of the same sentence of a report I am writing:

    It is calculated that removal of these units will save $11,800 per year in fan energy, assuming they are operating at 2” w.c. of static pressure (common for HEPA circulation units) and 50% fan efficiency, and the cost of electricity is $0.12 per kWh.

    It is calculated that if they are operating at 2” w.c. of static pressure (common for HEPA circulation units) and 50% fan efficiency, removal of these units will save $11,800 per year in fan energy, at a cost of electricity of $0.12 per kWh.


    The first version is the “corrected” version a boss marked-up and the second version is the original. It is a very common criticism of my writing that I often arrange sentences backwards and I’ve heard the same complaint from multiple superiors. Here’s the thing: talking to younger engineers on my level and below and observing their writing styles, my arrangement is often thought to be equivalent or better.

    So, is there an accepted right and wrong structure? Is it an age/style thing (caveat, the boss who QC’d this particular report is only 10 years older than me)? Does it matter?

    I do have a logic behind this sentence structure:
    1. Putting the assumptions/caveats before the conclusions makes it harder to miss them when skimming. It forces people to read the entire sentence.

    2. The writing order is a reflection of the order of problem-solving steps: problem->assumptions->calculations->results. That order is also used in the report as a whole: Introduction/Problem->Assumptions->Analysis->Conclusions.

    Opinions?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 13, 2013 #2

    Astronuc

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    I prefer the original version, and I prefer "putting the assumptions/caveats before the conclusions."

    I can see managers wanting to emphasize the conclusions/bottom line, but I prefer to inform the client (end user) regarding the details, i.e., assumptions/caveats/nuances/exceptions/limitations
     
  4. Mar 13, 2013 #3

    lisab

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    Removing the fans is estimated to save $11,800 per year. This estimate assumes the fans operate at 2” w.c., fan efficiency is 50%, and electricity is $0.12 per kWh.

    Or bullets (ooooh I love bullets!):

    Removing the fans is estimated to save $11,800 per year. This estimate assumes:
    • the fans operate at 2” w.c.,
    • fan efficiency is 50%, and
    • electricity is $0.12 per kWh.
     
  5. Mar 13, 2013 #4

    lisab

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    OK I just learned you can't bold bullets. Well who needs a bold bullet anyway.
     
  6. Mar 13, 2013 #5

    berkeman

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    It just looks like the manager wants to hilight the cost savings first, which I would be fine with. My two cents.

    (Oops, I got my two sentences backwards...)
     
  7. Mar 13, 2013 #6

    dlgoff

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    Since the savings are the important thing here, I might be inclined to say "You'll have energy savings of $11,800 per year if you get rid of those puppies, assuming these fans are operating ..." But I guess that's not the most professional way.
     
  8. Mar 13, 2013 #7

    berkeman

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    There are puppies involved? Holy cow that changes everything!...
     
  9. Mar 14, 2013 #8

    George Jones

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    I think that changing from the passive voice to the active voice strengthens both statements.
     
  10. Mar 14, 2013 #9

    Ben Niehoff

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    My opinion is that the most important part of a sentence should be in a prominent position: either the beginning or the end. I have a tendency to put it at the end, as though it were a punchline. But sometimes the purpose is better suited by putting it at the beginning.

    In this case, if I understand the audience correctly, the $11,800 per year money saved is the most important piece of information; the caveats are subordinate. It is definitely better to put that piece of information first. Hence I prefer the first version.

    The second version (yours) is not even "backwards". The important piece of information has been put in the middle, where it is least noticeable. If you were, e.g., trying to sell the idea of removing the units to save money, it would be a bad sentence arrangement.

    Incidentally, $11,800 is exactly what I paid for my first car.
     
  11. Mar 14, 2013 #10
    It looks kind of like an active-passive voice argument. I used to get this alot from editors and referees in my early years of writing journal articles. I wrote up arguments in the same way I developed them. I did this, I did that, I put this and that together, and here was my result. They didn't like that and kept saying, spare us the buildup and just come out and state your conclusions, and then if you want to elaborate on that, A LITTLE, do it afterwards.

    So it's kind of the difference between saying, "We conquered Rome by surrounding the city, effectively laying seige to population by cutting off their supply lines that fed them, clothed them and gave them water." As opposed to, "By cutting off the supply line of food, water and clothing to the city of Rome, we effectively laid seige to the population there, eventually allowing us to conquer the city." The second version is more chronologically sound, but doesn't have the same impact or clarity as the first, at least to some people, I guess.
     
  12. Mar 14, 2013 #11
    I would refine LisaB's version by using parentheses:

    "Removing the fans is estimated to save $11,800 per year (assuming the fans operate at 2” w.c., fan efficiency is 50%, and electricity is $0.12 per kWh)."

    As Ben Niehoff says, the stuff in parentheses is subordinate to the main message, $11,800 savings per year.
     
  13. Mar 14, 2013 #12

    OCR

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    It seems you can, if you bold each bullet separately.


    Removing the fans is estimated to save $11,800 per year. This estimate assumes:
    • the fans operate at 2” w.c.,
    • fan efficiency is 50%, and
    • electricity is $0.12 per kWh.

    I guess you really don't... :smile:




    OCR
     
  14. Mar 14, 2013 #13

    strangerep

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    Ah, I was just about to mention that! I guess you've studied technical writing, or else been admonished by a professional technical writer? (In my case it was the latter.)

    The versions in the original post show that Russ and his boss should take some lessons in this skill, or maybe read a textbook... :biggrin:
     
  15. Mar 14, 2013 #14

    jbunniii

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    I think the first sentence is easier to read, because it delivers the punch line immediately, followed by the caveats, instead of vice versa.

    In both sentences I wonder what value "It is calculated that..." is adding.
     
  16. Mar 14, 2013 #15
    That's it. The most logical is from details to conclusion, we called that "funneling". The alternate, conclusion first, then details why, we called that "showering". At our headquarters it was mandatory to write in a funneling style, so that management could quickly pick up the essence of a report or study by reading only the last few words of a paragraph.

    Another rule was that sentences were no longer than 25 words.

    So I'd write something like:

    The fans are typically operated at 2” w.c. of static pressure (common for HEPA circulation units). Assuming 50% fan efficiency, and a cost of electricity of $0.12 per kWh, removal of these units will save $11,800 per year.
     
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2013
  17. Mar 14, 2013 #16

    AlephZero

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    I prefer the corrected version. What is the main point are want to communicate here - the cost saving, or the details of the assumptions?

    If you have a track record for doing credible work, the assumptions probably won't be questioned anyway, though you need to state them somewhere for the record.

    I've learned the hard way that (especially with US readers, sadly) if you don't make your point in the first 10 words of a report or email, you might as well not bother to send it, because that's the attention span of the average reader.
     
  18. Mar 14, 2013 #17

    russ_watters

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    I just stopped myself from writing:
    "This, when implemented in conjunction with the previous recommendation, will allow..."

    And rewrote it as:
    "This will allow....., when implemented in conjunction with the previous recommendation."

    A coworker pointed out that there is one less comma in the second arrangement. Opinions?
     
  19. Mar 14, 2013 #18

    russ_watters

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    A fair point. I said before I liked that my phrasing made it harder to skip the assumptions, but there is a risk of the reader just stopping reading anyway.
     
  20. Mar 14, 2013 #19

    jim hardy

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    Get a copy of Strunk & White's "Elements of style" it'll help ...

    Of course to the engineer details of the fan are more interesting than the money. But to a businessman..... so write for your audience.

    Also, for understanding a bureaucracy and office politics
    over course of forty years i found C Northcote Parkinson's "Law of Delay" and Eric Hoffer's "Passionate state of Mind" absolutely essential.
     
  21. Mar 14, 2013 #20
    I was always taught that important points are moved toward the end of a sentence. Like others have mentioned, the summary/conclusion should be at the end, because the last point made is the one you most want to stick in the reader's mind. This practice is also seen in German, French, etc. many languages that influenced Olde English and the structure of the language. Important points get moved back.

    You also see this practice in the structure of a formal essay: any important points are put at the beginning or end. Less-important points are buried in the middle. (You could always run this question by a college English teacher to confirm.)

    Of course, the formal rules of English and proper writing don't matter if your employer has another opinion. (Consider how prevalent a non-existent word like "reiterate" has become. But it has been commonly accepted, even by people you'd expect to know better. *Ugh*)
     
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