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Exploring languages and cultures
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3.3.4 Features of technical language

Specialist vocabulary is not the only feature of language relating to a particular profession. Other areas of the language, such as its grammatical structures, can be affected by what it is used for and who the audience or readership is, and these are the areas on which you now focus.

Activity 25

Below are two descriptions of what a weather station does. Read them and decide:

1   (without counting) which description is longer in terms of the number of words used

2   which you think is the original description as found in an online encyclopedia (Wikipedia, n.d.).

Table 2
Version 1Version 2
A weather station is a facility, either on land or sea, with instruments and equipment for observing atmospheric conditions to provide information for weather forecasts and to study the weather and climate. The measurements taken include temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and precipitation amounts. Wind measurements are taken as free of other obstructions as possible, while temperature and humidity measurements are kept free from direct solar radiation, or insolation. Manual observations are taken at least once daily, while automated observations are taken at least once an hour. Weather conditions out at sea are taken by ships and buoys, which measure slightly different meteorological quantities such as sea surface, wave height, and wave period. Drifting weather buoys outnumber their moored versions by a significant amount. A weather station is a place, on land or sea, which has equipment used by scientists to look at atmospheric conditions. This enables them to compile weather forecasts and to study the weather and climate in general. They measure things like how hot it is, how humid it is, how strong the wind is, where it is coming from and how much it rains. They have to make sure that nothing obstructs their equipment when measuring the wind and that no direct solar radiation (insolation) affects their temperature and humidity measurements. They make manual observations at least once a day, while automated ones are taken at least once an hour. Ships and buoys measure weather conditions out at sea and they quantify slightly different things, such as the temperature of the sea surface, how high waves are and how long the waves last. There are far more drifting buoys than there are moored ones.


1 Version 2 has more words: 154 as opposed to 127.

2 Version 1 is the original text. It is taken from an entry entitled ‘weather station’ in Wikipedia (n.d.)

Activity 26

Look again at the two descriptions of a weather station and what it does, but focus specifically on the grammatical structures used and decide why one passage contains more words than the other, despite communicating the same volume of information. Make brief notes in the box below.

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Primarily, the second version is longer because it contains more verbs. So, for example, it talks of ‘how much it rains’ (4 words) rather than ‘precipitation amounts’ (2 words). Another way to put this is that the first version is shorter because it contains more nouns (both ‘precipitation’ and ‘amounts’ are nouns).

Measuring the weather involves action on many levels, from the weather itself to the people and instruments doing the measuring. Yet, in Version 1 (above) many of these actions are described grammatically in terms of nouns instead of verbs. This process of turning verbs, adjectives and adverbs, such as ‘how hard the wind blows’ into a noun, ‘wind velocity’, is called nominalisation and is a common feature of scientific and academic writing.

It is noticeable in the original text (Version 1) that when verbs are used they often take a passive construction, for example ‘wind measurements are taken’ rather than ‘people take wind measurements’. You may well have heard it explained that such a construction emphasises the processes (taking measurements) rather than the agents (people). In a sense, when describing how a weather station works it doesn’t matter who takes the measurements. Such a focus also holds true in academic writing in areas of study beyond science (although styles do vary according to the discipline). Concepts and ideas are at the forefront of much academic writing (more so than the people who created them), so passive constructions are used more often than they would be in everyday communication, where the focus is usually on what people say and do.