Using Latin abbreviations in technical writing

Some professions continue to use Latin abbreviations because of tradition, the need for precise terms, or to represent an appearance of knowledge (probably stemming from a misguided effort to create an ethos of “learnèd”).

Along with medicine, the law, and academia, technical writing has traditionally used Latin abbreviations because of their scientific accuracy–instead of using a translated substitution, technical documents would rely on the objective and universal meanings of Latin phrases. For instance, searching for “Latin abbreviations in technical writing” will give you results for “how to use Latin abbreviations in scientific and technical writing.”

Using Latin abbreviations is waning in technical writing though as we continue to develop content for a wider, global audience and when that content needs to be understood and oftentimes localized (translated). Additionally, the universality of Latin abbreviations as “objective definitions” is fading too.

Current Technical Writing Trends

STC’s AccessAbility SIG provides a list of commonly used Latin abbreviations and the English equivalents that technical writers should be using in documentation.

In business, formal, and technical writing, use the English equivalent of the abbreviation to avoid misinterpretation by your readers

The SIG also offers good reasons for spelling out the English version of the word(s) and using plain English:

It is best to create content using “plain language” principles. Plain language (also called plain English) is a writing style that is simple and direct, but not simplistic or patronizing. When writing in plain language, use short sentences with simple words. Avoid jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations. Plain language should be visually inviting, logically organized, and understandable on the first reading.

Technical Writers Write for Localization

As a technical communicator who also coordinates the localization of content, I have become much more aware of the word choices I make and how that will impact the localization. Most recently, my department has agreed to make a concerted effort to quit using Latin abbreviations–this will not only impact the English versions that we create but also will affect the other 9 languages that our content is localized into.

 e.g.  for example
 i.e.  that is
 via email  using email
 etc.  and so forth

Latin abbreviations do not translate well and especially when they are translated into the foreign language equivalent and not the Latin root.

  • For example, in German e.g. is z.B. which translates to “zum Beispiel” and this is sometimes used instead of e.g. for “for example” (whew!). Not to mention when bspw (beispielweise) is used instead by a different technical writer in a different instance.
  • Another example is from our Spanish content translations which used to translate i.e. to p.ej but have since begun to use “por ejemplo”.
  • Only use “via” for geographical references – in technical descriptions, use a suitable verb (for example: press, click, select a button). This makes the action clearer and avoids the use of the passive voice.

Closing Thoughts

I know that this is old news to most of you but since it was recently on my mind, I thought it was worth sharing. I also wonder if there are times when an abbreviation is necessary to alleviate misunderstanding. Perhaps someone can share an example.

Another related topic I have been thinking about is the use of contractions in technical writing especially as our field enters the social media realm and tries to engage on a more personal and informal level. Contractions are similar to abbreviations in that they do not translate well and should be avoided. But that’ll have to wait until another time.

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3 Comments

Filed under Localization, Technical Writing

3 responses to “Using Latin abbreviations in technical writing

  1. Kirk

    One example of Latin abbreviations you probably want to leave abbreviated: AM and PM when writing times.

  2. Pingback: Latin abbreviations in technical writing | Techdocworld's Blog

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