Be a professional: Write like one

March 2013 » Columns » PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE
John P. Bachner

You've discovered that you're seriously ill. "I want to find the best, most professional doctor to help me deal with this," you say. You obtain a referral and arrange an appointment. The doctor examines you, then tells you to get dressed and meet him in his office. As you put your clothes on, you feel reassured for the first time in a long time. Then you approach the doctor's office and see him sitting there, digging in his nose. What do you think about the good doctor now?

Would a civil engineer do that? It's tough to compare. After all, civil engineers do not begin their engagements by taking a personal medical history. The most common opening element is a proposal – an opportunity to put one's best, most professional foot forward in writing. And what do all too many civil engineers do with that opportunity? The same thing the physician did, except they do it through word selection rather than rhinotillexis.

"Let's see," those guilty of the practice must say to themselves, "I could write, 'We are pleased to respond to your request for a proposal,' or 'This proposal responds to your request.' Which will it be?" Sadly, it's often the alternative that relies on active-voice anthropomorphization to avoid use of a first-person pronoun ("We"), because "We" would be wrong ("We don't do things that way."), which is a truly absurd evaluation. Who could possibly think it would be better to suggest a proposal can imbue itself with human characteristics and so prepare to respond to an RFP as opposed to using a word which says, inherently, "Our firm is composed of people who want to delight you"? Pick a winner.

Then there are those who believe they will burnish their professional image by using legalese, a writing style that relies on silly conventions and English grotesqueries – not just Latin – to contribute mightily to the creation of sentences that seem to defy understanding. You want a silly convention? How about using "including but not limited to" to introduce a list of any kind. But "included" has never meant "limited to," so why would it be necessary to warn others, "CAUTION: Included Means Included, Not Limited to"?

And while we're on conventions, what's with the vestige-of-contract-formation, number-reaffirmation convention that seems to be going around of late; you know, the one that compels people to restate a number a different way? How many civil engineers use it? As many as fifty thousand (50,000)? Sixty thousand (60,000), perhaps?

As for grotesqueries, consider "fullest," as in "fullest extent of the law." First of all, "fullest" is an illogical word because it describes an unreal situation. Take three identical glasses and fill each with an equal amount of water, just enough so it fills the glass without spilling. Which is fullest? The question makes no sense. Full is an absolute word, meaning that nothing gets fuller than full (or more ideal than ideal, or more perfect than perfect).

But let's not stop with those. Civil engineers concerned about a good first impression should also have no use for "hereinabove," another legalesian Xtenda-word, or for its mates: "herein," "hereto," and – who could forget? – "hereinbelow."

I'm confident that "albeit" and "in lieu of" are not solely legalesian: You don't have to be a lawyer to be pretentious. The same would apply to those who believe they advance their status by avoiding "about," and substituting instead: in respect to, respecting, concerning, in regards to, regarding, with regard to, with respect to, and – et tu, Brute? – in re. About's just fine. So is "but" in lieu of "however" and "albeit" (the latter as noted hereinabove).

Bottom line: Professionals exhibit professionalism in writing by making what they write as understandable as possible, in large part by using simple language, even when what they have to say is somewhat complex.

John P. Bachner is the executive vice president of ASFE/The Geoprofessional Business Association (GBA), a not-for-profit association of geoprofessional firms – firms that provide geotechnical, geologic, environmental, construction materials engineering and testing (CoMET), and related professional services. GBA develops programs, services, and materials that its members apply to achieve excellence in their business and professional practices. He can be contacted at

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