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Confused Engineering Words: Part Two

Confused Engineering Words: Part Two

Thanks to the wonders of word processing I can enjoy a vocabulary significantly larger than the collection of words I can actually spell. Alas, however, a spell-checker can only get you so far and confusing words has become the new marker of a badly written report. So here is the other half of this series picking out the words most likely to catch-out engineers writing reports.

effect or affect?

A confusion so common that Microsoft Word now tries to check for it; the dreaded ‘effect’ or ‘affect’.  As a rule of thumb you can limit yourself to using ‘affect’ only when you want a verb and ‘effect’ when you need a noun. As a quick test, you should be talking about effects (loads), and describing things as affected (structures). In formal language, however, you can use ‘effect’ as a verb, to bring something about as a result; in these cases what you should be effecting is a change.

story or storey?

You probably know the difference between these two words, it’s just a common mistake on last-minute drawings: Authors tell stories and buildings have storeys. In the distant future, however, I will concede that structures made sentient by our continuing desperation for smarter building systems may well have a few stories to share…

alot, alright and atleast?

None of these words are strictly real words; they are all the result of they way people talk. Whilst alot and atleast remain correct only in the realms of YouTube comments, alright has entered the vernacular, albeit reluctantly. This means that you can argue alright is, well, all right to put in your engineering reports; but given the traditionalism of the industry I’d recommend that you avoid it.

discreet or discrete?

Unless they are particularly secretive, loading defined as a number of points is discrete. The former does not really apply to engineering works, which are rarely circumspect or confidential.

shall or will?

I didn’t even know there was a difference between these words until someone pulled me up on it a few years back. Unless you’re being particularly pedantic (imagine; a pedantic engineer…)  it officially doesn’t matter, but if you’re describing actions in the future only you (i.e. “I”) ‘will’, everyone else ‘shall’. Unless you’re being emphatic about things, where then you are the only one who (i.e. “I”) ‘shall’, everyone else “will”.

proscribe or prescribe?

It’s words like these that give the English language a bad name. If I prescribe something I’ll be setting out a rule for your to follow, but if I proscribe something I’ll be forbidding you from doing it. Frankly I would use prescribe and prohibit to avoid confusion (proscribe being the realms of formal language in anycase). Just don’t be surprised if proscribing drinking on site causes some unexpected results…

e.g. and i.e.

Of course, we all took Latin (Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?), and so we all know that ‘e.g.’ stands for exempli gratia (for the sake of example), whilst ‘i.e.’ stands for id est (that is). With this knowledge inherent from our valuable tutelage in ways of dealing with the return of the Roman Empire, it’s easy to distinguish between these two abbreviations: If you’re giving an example, you need “e.g.”; if you’re providing clarification you need “i.e.”.

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  1. Pete

    profescient, i mean proficient is always the one that I always balls up on

    • For a second there I thought I’d gone and spelt proficient wrong at the start of the article when you said that!

  2. Thanks, Tom. We can all improve our use of English.

    • Indeed; I still enjoy finding new words, or rediscovering old ones- I’m currently trying to work out how to get my current word of the day “temerity” into a report…

  3. I hate word confusion, as not even spell check can help. I really do hate it when people spell a lot as one word though. I think this post could help most people out!

    • Yeah- catches me out all the time. I agree with ‘alot’ though, but it can only be a matter of time until it enters the language proper; English is what the majority make it.

  4. Jim M.

    Occasionally, I’ll be reviewing plans for a new building, and the client’s engineer or surveyor will use “site distance” or even “cite distance” to describe how far drivers will be able to see from the driveway (sight distance).

    • That’s a good one; and very easy to make when you’re rushing to get stuff out- I expect.

      • Jim M.

        My favorite, although not in an engineering context, was “insight a riot.”

  5. Ward Davis

    Shall / will is a tricky one:

    “In CSA Standards, “shall” is used to express a requirement, i.e., a provision that the user is obliged to satisfy in order to comply with the standard; “should” is used to express a recommendation or that Which is advised but not required; “may” is used to express an option or that which is permissible within the limits of the standard; and “can” is used to express possibility or capability…” – Any CAN/CSA Standard.

    • That’s interesting; although it’s even more interesting that they feel the need to formally clarify their intent. Shows how flexible the English language is, and how easy it is to be misunderstood.